From Dean Nordt

As high school students make plans to enter college and pursue a career path, what criterion should most guide them in choosing a major? Should they choose majors that will likely lead to jobs with high pay? Or, should they “follow their passion,” whether that leads to a high paying job or not? Students –– and their parents –– have been wrestling with this question for a very long time.

guitar and amplifier

At present, the national landscape in higher education is changing rapidly with greater emphasis on the “practical” academic majors that are commonly believed to lead to immediate employment of a specific kind. This phenomenon seems to have accelerated since the 2008 economic downturn. So, how should parents and their future college students resolve their differences in passions versus practicalities? There’s no doubt that we need medical practitioners, scientists and engineers. However, if they are all we produce, I believe we are missing other aspects of what drives the economy, and we diminish the importance of the human condition or what it is that makes us whole.

About one-half of all students who matriculate as freshmen into the College of Arts & Sciences each fall declare a prehealth concentration, intending to one day become doctors, nurses, psychologists, medical technicians or other healthcare professionals. But many of these students will not complete the prehealth program –– in large part because they soon realize it is not what they thought it would be as a profession, or because they have discovered that their talents and interests would be better served elsewhere. Then what? And what about the students who matriculated in other disciplines to begin with? 

More students than you might think who choose one of the “other” degrees, such as ones in the arts and humanities, go on to successful and satisfying careers, and the reasons are twofold. First, because of the robust core curriculum in the College of Arts & Sciences and the rigors of our individual majors, those students are well prepared to enter a workforce where critical thinking and leadership skills are held at a premium. Just consider the number of successful alumni in the business world (including CEOs) holding an undergraduate degree in the humanities. 

Not long ago, I had a conversation with an alumnus with a BA degree who has done incredibly well in the business world. It turns out that his current occupation didn’t even exist when he was at Baylor –– so how could he have been trained for it? Specialized skills are still valuable, however, and our new core offers more flexibility for second majors, multiple minors and even certificate programs to provide a robust degree plan that combines the arts and humanities with professions. Our arts and humanities degrees also give students a strong foundation to go on to law school or graduate school and serve as an excellent springboard for professional graduate degrees.

The second reason for the success of so many of our arts and humanities majors is that they are following their passions. This is sometimes a more challenging position for parents because of their understandable desire for success along a clear pathway, especially since a college education is a significant financial investment. I will give myself as an example. My daughter Kaylee was a fashion merchandizing major with a minor in entrepreneurship. She is now a successful jewelry business owner in Fort Worth. I almost blew that one in the advice I was tempted to give her as a scientist (to pursue a job in science, engineering, health, etc.). But, I learned my lesson. She followed her passion. The point is that the major really doesn’t matter as much as passion and commitment to hard work. Worse yet, I told my son Garrison that whatever he did, “Do not get into the golf profession.” He is now head pro at a golf club in Houston. I’m a slow learner.

My strong suggestion is that we as parents let our children follow their passions. Following the passions of someone else will only take them so far. I know too many people who are less than happy with their career paths because they took the path someone else wanted them to take. I am not saying you should remove yourself completely as a parent from career conversations with your aspiring college students –– you have a wealth of knowledge at your disposal that your son or daughter does not. But, listen and try to decipher what they are really interested in. Passion will lead them to where they need to go, successfully so.