Job demand is an important consideration, as is the earning potential within a field being considered.

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Chelsea Artman enrolled as a freshman at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood, Pennsylvania, to explore her study interests, and by the time she transferred to La Roche College in Pittsburgh as a sophomore, she decided to major in graphic design.

But after a semester there, she noticed she wasn’t doing as well in courses rooted in design and drawing as she was in computer-based classes that touched on such topics as social media.

“I kind of realized that graphic arts was something I liked as a hobby, but I didn’t really see myself doing it as a career,” says Artman, 21, of Upper Burrell, Pennsylvania. “I didn’t see myself ultimately succeeding.”

She changed her major to communication, media and technology, and added minors in visual communication and marketing.The good news for her is she lost no time making that switch, and as a La Roche senior, is on track to graduate in four years this spring — partly because she was able to apply her graphic design credits toward her visual communication minor, and partly because she sought out advice and acted quickly.

Money isn’t everything (but it’s something)

Her experience exemplifies a pair of weighty questions facing millions of soon-to-be college freshmen and their families: Just what is the right major to choose? And how early should the choice be made?

Experts say the answer to the first question depends on a variety of factors. For sure, job demand is an important consideration, as is the earning potential within a field being considered.

“You certainly don’t want to put out $30,000-plus a year for a college education and graduate — usually with some considerable loan debt — and then make $25,000 a year, without some potential or plan for future increased earning,” says Rebecca Rosswog, coordinator for career development at La Roche.

That said, she and other experts said money and job outlook are not the only considerations.

“Just because there are a lot of jobs in health care, doesn’t mean you should become a nurse if you can’t handle blood,” says Michele Norwood, assistant vice provost for undergraduate student success at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s a whole lot easier to study something that you are passionate about than something you are studying only because you think it will get you a job.”

But finding that balance isn’t always easy.

Though some teenagers have a firm plan, others have career interests that are fickle, the result of a riveting course completed in high school or a favorite TV show. And there are pressures, some subtle and others less so, that come into play at home.

In a family that, for instance, has multiple generations of police officers or lawyers, a teenager may be predisposed to continue the tradition, says Rosswog. Or, they may want to please parents enamored by the idea that their son or daughter wants to be a doctor and has settled on premed.

It’s never too soon to explore options

For that and other reasons, experts say it’s important to have a frank family dialogue and begin researching possible majors — certainly by high school, and perhaps earlier. The sooner the discussion, the further along students may be toward squaring talents and interests with career ambitions.

“In high school, I recommend that students start ascertaining what they are passionate about,” says Joy Doyle, director of career development at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. “Maybe they could do some volunteering or job shadowing.”

Internships can also give a realistic picture of the field they are contemplating.
“If you’re thinking business is something you are interested in, you’ll want to take some business electives when in high school,” Rosswog says.

Research tools like interest inventories can help students pair their passions with potential majors, say experts. High school and campus counselors are a good sources to locate those and other career tools.

And it’s important to remember that a major can lead to careers that might not seem obvious at first, Rosswog says. For instance, psychology, sociology and the social sciences have applications in careers from law, business and public policy to diplomacy.

“We’ve had professional writing majors who are now technical writers with some engineering firms,” she says. “They’re highly paid.”

If a student knows what he or she wants to study by the time they enroll, all the better. But counselors say it’s also OK to explore interests as a freshman without declaring a major — and that exploration does not automatically mean a student will take longer to graduate.

Campuses have approaches to encourage freshman-year exploration, among them IUP, where several hundred of the school’s 3,000 freshmen arrive undecided, Norwood says.

In IUP’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, for instance, students can take a course in the humanities paired with another course, “Exploring Tradition and Change,” that speaks to what it means to study in the humanities and social science, she says.

Students can take an introductory business course in the college of business linked to a course in American history that includes a history of business.

So, just what are the most popular areas of study in college?

Of the nearly 1.8 million bachelors degrees awarded in 2011-12, the most current federal data available for comparisons, business claimed the largest share at 367,000, according to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Next came the social sciences and history at 179,000, health professions and related programs at 163,000 and education at 179,000.

Growth patterns varied by discipline, with some trends especially sharp. For instance, NCES reported that degree awards in health and related professions grew by 40 percent between 2001-02 and 206-07 and by 61 percent between 2006-07 and 2011-12.

As for starting salaries, they can vary sharply, too. An employer survey released this winter by the Bethlehem, Pa.-based National Association of Colleges and Employers found that average starting salaries for the Class of 2016 are expected to range from $64,891 in engineering and $61,321 in computer science, the two highest in the survey, to $46,065 in the humanities and $34,891 in education.

The association also reported that more than half of employers expected to hire bachelor’s holders in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math this year, making those graduates the most sought after.

At La Roche, sophomore Joshua Baktay, 20, of Zelienople, Pennsylvania, believes his double major in biochemistry and mathematics will give him a meaningful way to contribute to society and to earn a good living. A pianist and guitar player, he considered being a musician but said he understood the difficulty he might have supporting himself. “I would say you have to find that perfect synthesis between what you love to do — that’s critical — and fulfilling your life’s goals.”