Double the majors, double the value?

##Eric Schuck
##Eric Schuck

About the writer: Eric Schuck holds a Ph.D. in economics from Washington State University and a professorship in economics at Linfield University. He’s twice been honored with Fulbright Fellowships to work and study abroad, once in South Africa and once in Lebanon. An officer in the Navy Reserve, he’s also served a pair of active-duty military tours in the Middle East.   

In 2022, just under 16,000 students earned bachelor’s degrees from Ivy League schools. And while they’re all great schools with amazing resources, keeping them in perspective matters: They aren’t that big.

Together, Oregon State and Washington State produce almost as many undergraduates each year. In fact, Oregon State alone graduates more than Harvard, Yale and Princeton combined. So while they attract a lot of attention, the “Ivies” have a pretty narrow footprint, both academically and economically.

So where do college students go? Most of higher education’s heavy lifting occurs at so-called “non-selective” schools. These universities typically accept 50% or more of their applicants and educate more than 80% of all American college students.

When we consider what it means for an 18-year-old to head off to college, we’re better off examining these schools than some of their more famous cousins.

On balance, they do pretty well. According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, median wages for college graduates run about $24,000 higher per year than for high school graduates.

More critically, the lowest 25% of college graduates still earn roughly $5,000 per year more than the median for workers with only a high school diploma. So across the board, heading to college pays off.

Of course, majors matter as well. A lot.

Drawing yet again on Federal Reserve data, engineering and economics top most earnings list, ahead of even high demand fields like nursing. What’s really, interesting, though, is the effect of double-majors.

For years, the impact of a double-major on earnings potential remained unclear. Some research suggested it paid off, while other showed little to no impact.

Fortunately, a recent analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research dug deeper into the issue and seems to have produced an answer.

Students with double-majors, especially students who study fields that are not closely related — think economics and French as opposed to accounting and marketing — face 30% to 50% less income and unemployment risk than students with a single specialty. In short, a double-major provides a lot of economic protection.

There is no definitive answer yet as to why this occurs, but the results suggest diversifying academic assets matters just as much as diversifying an investment portfolio. Basically, a student with two majors can seek employment in more markets than a one-trick pony, and the bigger the differences, the broader the options.

That’s worth knowing as students approach the end of their high school years and face the inevitable “what’s next?” questions from friends and family. Developing a wide range of skills is a good idea, and the wider the better.

There’s also a subtle message here about the liberal arts. Developing specific skills in college matter. That’s why engineering majors earn as much as they do.

But the real value lies in acquiring the capacity to learn. And double-majors benefit both because they bring more and different types of tools to bear, but also because it requires intellectual agility to work in and across multiple fields.

Combining technical fields with liberal arts training maximizes this effect. And the data seems to bear this out.

All of this should give confidence to the kids not headed to Yale.

Regardless of where the future leads, be it Washington State, Oregon State, Western Oregon, Portland State or, yes, Linfield, know the journey will most certainly be worth the time, energy and effort.

As for wanting to double-major in accounting and theater? Go for it. That pays off, too.


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