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Most families link a college education to future employment. But how many students are choosing a major when they first attend school—and how does that relate to their anticipated salary level?

According to How America Values College 2018, two-thirds of families (68%) say the student entered school with a college major and career in mind. Of those who had a career in mind, more than two-thirds (70%) had done some research on employment opportunities and commensurate salaries for that career.

Students who attend four-year private colleges, students who attend college full-time, and students whose family have a plan to pay for college are all more likely than their counterparts to begin college with a specific career goal. Also, underclassmen are also more likely than upperclassmen to say they entered college with a career in mind.

Career known prior to college

Students majoring in engineering, health professions, law enforcement, and physical sciences are more likely than other majors to have had a career in mind before entering college. Those studying architecture, communications/journalism, and mathematics were least likely to have had a career in mind.

Top ten majors by enrollment percentage

  1. Business (14%)
  2. Health professions (11%)
  3. Computer, information science (8%)
  4. Engineering (8%)
  5. Education (8%)
  6. Psychology (7%)
  7. Visual and performing arts (7%)
  8. Biology, biomedical sciences (6%)
  9. Liberal arts, humanities (6%)
  10. Communications, journalism (4%)

Seniors are more likely than underclassmen to major in communications or psychology. Freshmen are more likely to major in liberal arts or to say they are undecided.

Expected salaries after college

Across groups, parents and students have similar expectations for the student's starting salary after graduation. Families anticipate the median starting salary range their students will earn, assuming they are employed in their field after they graduate, is between $40,000 and $59,000 per year. Twenty-eight percent expect graduates to earn within that range, 28 percent expect graduates to earn less than $40,000 per year, and 35 percent expect them to earn $60,000 per year or more. Nine percent said they weren’t sure. Compared to other regions of the country, a higher percentage of families who live in the Northeast expect the graduate to earn a starting salary of $60,000 or more.

Expected starting salaries vary greatly by major. Students who expect to make more than the average median salary are those majoring in biology, computer science, engineering, and mathematics, while students studying agriculture, communications/journalism, education, and visual and performing arts expect to earn less.

Nearly half of undergraduates (45%) have already decided they intend to attend graduate school. A master’s degree is the most commonly cited post-graduate degree, planned by 31 percent of students. Nine percent are planning to earn a doctoral degree, and 5 percent a professional degree (such as law or medicine).

Of those who plan to attend graduate school, more than half (58%) plan to enroll within 12 months of completing their bachelor’s degree. Nearly one-fifth (17%) prefer to gain some work experience first, while the others need time off before continuing their education (13%) or haven’t thought it through yet (12%).

Students most likely to be planning to attend graduate school are studying biology, social sciences, psychology, architecture, and education.

Find out more about How America Values College 2018.

How families are making college more affordable
Sticker price? Work-study? Free tuition? How well do you understand paying-for-college terminology?
The advantages of planning how to pay for college
Top 10 things college students wish they’d known before enrolling
Appreciating the value and benefits of a college education
Choosing a college that’s the right fit


About this study
How America Values College 2018, a national study by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, explores how families of undergraduates regard the value of higher education, the factors that influence their choice of schools, and the steps they’re taking to make college affordable.

Source: How America Values College 2018, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.