College students pick majors with hearts, eyes on jobs
By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 2, 2010 1:46 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- The threat of a tough job market didn't keep Brittany Massey and her twin sister, Brooke Massey, from pursuing degrees in a field that coined the term "starving artist."
The Masseys will graduate from Mount Olive College this December with art degrees -- Brittany with a focus on visual communications, and Brooke concentrating on fine arts. Both of the sisters already have plans for landing jobs after graduation.
"I kind of just want to be with a company, designing brochures, billboards, whatever they need. And if not, then freelance," Brittany said.
Brooke decided to earn a degree in fine arts after a high school teacher encouraged her to develop her skills. She plans to become a lateral entry teacher while producing artwork.
"I definitely think I'll land on my feet. I've talked to a couple of schools back home in Maryland and Virginia, and hopefully I'll be able to teach. I want to teach middle school, and sell my art on the side as well," she said.
Despite a still-struggling economy, the two young women are among a number of students pursuing degrees in fields not traditionally known for offering high salaries.
The website PayScale.com, which tracks salary information by college degree, recently released its annual list of the best- and worst-paying college degrees. Although any kind of college degree typically means a $20,000 boost in income, some degrees are known to pay more than others, according to the statistics.
Fine arts ranked low with a starting annual salary of $35,800. A college graduate with two years' experience in social work will earn a starting salary of $33,400, according to the site. Elementary education also ranked near the bottom, with the average starting salary at $33,000, followed by theology, music and Spanish language degree earnings. Horticulture, hospitality and tourism and drama are also generally low-paying when compared to starting salaries for other types of bachelor's degrees.
In comparison, college grads with a bachelor's degree in engineering or other technical field can typically expect starting salaries in the $50,000 range, with the possibility for a six-figure income well within reach by the time they hit the middle of their careers.
Petroleum engineers have the highest potential earning power, closely followed by people with bachelor's degrees in aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering or nuclear engineering. Applied mathematics, biomedical engineering, physics, computer engineering and economics majors also have a financial leg up on their peers.
Although some fields are known to typically pay less and offer fewer opportunities than others, degree programs and job market demands have changed over the years to include wider definitions.
The difference is evident when the Masseys compared their own training to the education their older sister, Tara Massey, received when she was an art student at Mount Olive College.
Her sister "hasn't been the luckiest person" to find jobs in her field, but the technology and training have changed since then, Brittany said.
"I'm not too worried about it, because I always feel like there's something for me somewhere," she said. "I've learned so much more than (Tara) ever did, I feel like I could find a job anywhere."
Art professor Larry Lean started the art department at Mount Olive College in 1987 and has seen how the program and the art field have changed in the last two decades. Mount Olive College now offers courses in the applied side of art, including a variety of skills such as photography, writing and design.
An art degree has many possible uses that are very much in demand in today's world, Lean said. Many of his students have used their degrees to become lateral entry teachers, or to pursue jobs in other forms of communications.
"A lot of them that come in to art, stay in art. That's where their heart is, that's where their love is, and the truth about it is, if you're committed to it and you're good at it, the jobs will be available," he said. "I'm not convinced they're getting less and less art jobs. With communications the way it is, I think they're getting more and more art jobs. I think our graduates have an amazing track record of getting jobs. It's amazing, in an economy like this, that they do."
Not all students leave for college with a major in mind. Mount Olive College's undergraduate students typically declare a major no later than the spring of their sophomore year, and the school encourages students to take a career selection class if they are still undeclared at the end of their freshman year. The college offers advice and career counseling at the Student Success Center and provides testing and guidance through the center and through student advisers.
There is rarely a single reason why a student chooses to declare a certain major, according to Dr. Ronda Bryant, assistant vice president for Student Development at Mount Olive College.
"We have a wide variety of majors, and students decide based on a number of things," she said.
Mount Olive College's business management and biology programs boast the largest number of enrolled traditional students, with the latter program especially popular for people planning on going into health care. Recreation and leisure studies programs are popular with the school's large number of student athletes, many of whom want to go into sports administration. Among non-traditional students, early childhood education and criminal justice programs have the highest enrollment, Ms. Bryant said.
But sometimes students major in a field that doesn't interest them, just because they are afraid they won't be able to find employment in an area that holds their attention, she added.
"Students are sometimes cautious about majoring in fields like English or history because they're not really sure what they might do with a degree in those very liberal arts fields other than teach. But what I've found is students who have those majors are very good writers, and that's something all employers look for," she said.
Sometimes students go into degree programs that traditionally lead to jobs that don't pay as much or offer as many opportunities, because they feel a connection with the work. If a student is dedicated to pursuing a career in a field affected by the recession, they may need to look further afield for job possibilities. Moving to another area to find work and considering creative ways of using their degree are some of the possibilities students should prepare for, Ms. Bryant said.
"You can use a fine arts degree in a corporate setting, it may just be in a different way. ... I think it's not impossible, you just have to be prepared," she said.
The biggest piece of advice for all the students who come into the Student Success Center, regardless of their major, is to know beforehand what they're getting into, Ms. Bryant said.
A college degree can be a ticket to a well-paying job, but many employers are now seeking candidates who have experience outside the classroom, too, she said. Most Mount Olive College programs involve some kind of experience outside the classroom, requiring students to produce art portfolios, participate in community projects, shadow professionals on the job or complete internships.
Taking advantage of those kinds of opportunities is vital in getting the most out of a college experience, and ultimately, any college degree is what you make of it, Ms. Bryant said.
"I really do try to talk students out of pursuing degrees that they really don't want, because in the end, if you don't do anything with your degree, you won't be marketable," she said.