The Myth That College and Major Choice Decides Johnny's Future

By Dietz, Janis | College Student Journal, June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Myth That College and Major Choice Decides Johnny's Future


Dietz, Janis, College Student Journal


Though the importance of college is well recognized (Heckert & Wallace, 1998; Arney, Hardeback, Estrada & Permenter, 2006), there continues to be debate about whether a specific major or choice of college affects a person's future success as measured by position and/or compensation. As college costs have risen faster than income (Anonymous, 2008; Tozzi, 2009), parents and school counselors are increasing efforts to find the most affordable, yet worthwhile, options for higher education.

This research was undertaken to investigate whether there is a relationship among the many variables that a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) possesses on the way to leading a large company. Obviously, environment, the education of one's parents, opportunity, family wealth, and geography all play a part. But, should today's high school students put more or less emphasis on choice of college or major and do those factors have a correlation with their eventual career success as CEO of a Fortune 500 Company? College websites work hard to promote the success of their graduates. When a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, neither one of whom have college degrees, enters the realm of spectacular success, "Johnny's" parents might do well to look at his or her own development rather than a particular institution of higher education.

Literature Review

Career Choice:

Career choice is shaped by outcome expectancies, career interests, and career self-efficacy (Tang et al, 2008). The choice of major, discussed below, also affects the career of many people along with factors such as availability of jobs. In the words of a Harvard educated "virtual CEO", who went from one career to another, "Don't let a career drive you, let passion drive your life" (Komisar, 2000).

The top companies in the Fortune 500 have headquarters concentrated in the Eastern half of the United States. Clustering of industries (Porter, 1990) may have some effect on those brought up in a specific area. For instance, 17% of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies in 2007 were born in New York, which could have contributed to where they went to school and who was visiting campuses on hiring visits.

College choice

There has long been a debate about whether choosing the right college is one of, if not the, most important decisions a student can make. The argument is either, a) The choice of school makes the difference; or b) It is the student who makes the difference and not the school. Given the variables affecting success, e.g. the student's interest, the school's product, and even the student population, the difficulty of measuring this is obvious:

                             Undergraduate Degree

Fortune 100 top corporate     1980   2001   2007
executives (Hoovers,2007):

  Ivy League                   14%    10%    13%
  Public college               32%    48%    29%

Background (social capital, parental influence, etc)) [right arrow] College (opportunities, fellow students, networking)) [right arrow] Job environment (economy, opportunity, competition).

Measuring the definitive effect of any one of these is difficult because some have a greater or lesser impact on the person. Some students react to being reared in a poor family by excelling in higher education and some do not. These are difficult variables to measure.

There exists both anecdotal and research evidence that attending an Ivy League School has a positive effect on salaries. The Wall Street Journal reported on a study that concluded "senior managers who graduated from Ivy League schools earned $32,581 more per year and had significantly more promotions than those from other schools" (1994).

The voices rejecting the notion that the institution is the main factor include:

1. "Past experience suggests that the particular college a student attends is far less important than what the student does to develop his or her strengths and talents over the next four years" (Shellenbarger, 2009). …

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