09/12/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2013

For Love or for Money: The Politics of Picking a College Major

By the second day of classes, there were already multiple postings in my college's Facebook group of roughly the same slideshow. Always bluntly titled (but generally accompanied with smiley faces by the poster in an attempt to balance things out), this slideshow wanted to tell me all about the five, or 10, or 20 least profitable majors.

I tend to avoid these slideshows because one of my current anticipated majors, political science, invariably figures into them. It's pretty depressing having your syllabi for comparative politics (which I was pretty excited about) and "average salary for political science major: $35,000" side-by-side. Generally, my response is to try and justify it by saying I'm going to double major in economics. Or that I'm going to get a master's in public policy. Or that I will, you know, eventually do something profitable with my life. Somehow.

In retrospect, I'd known this was coming from a long time. There are two things that define my pursuit of happiness as a person: the standard of living I'd like to live at, and the career path I'd like to pursue. I, as well as many others (English majors, I'm looking at you), happen to be in the uncomfortable position of having the two be at odds. It leaves me with two disparate options. I could soldier on in the name of passion, a la the starving artist in a garret. Or I could look at how much money I'm paying for college, and apply to business school instead.

The noble decision is almost always painted as being the former. As college students, we're frequently told to "do what we love" and "follow our heart." We are reminded that we don't want to live a life we don't enjoy. But I can't ignore the fact that even though I love political science, I don't love the salary attached, and that's a very real concern for me. I've lived on my own "budget" for about three weeks now as a college freshman, and I'm already beginning to recognize that I'm a bit more costly than I anticipated. So what does it say about me, if I'm hesitant about picking a major because of the money? Am I not noble enough? Passionate enough? Should I leave political science to those who don't even flinch at a starting salary of $35,000 a year, and admit that the University of Michigan's business school, with its recent $200 million donation by Stephen M. Ross, is looking more and more attractive? (They have an omelet bar in the lobby. I am weak.)

It seems like two things have happened: One, that there's a lot of guilt lying around for those who dare to think practically about the implications of their college major and two, that pursuing your passion in college is becoming a luxury even on top of the luxury college already is. I'm not sure yet if I would drop political science because of the money. Luckily, I happen to also enjoy something a little bit more profitable, economics, as a probable double major. But while I respect the idea of following passion (and the people who choose to do it), I don't want to be made to feel guilty because I chose practicality. I'm also not confident romanticizing living paycheck to paycheck makes sense because in all actuality, it's not romantic. Or fun. It's stressful, and occasionally miserable, and it's what makes chasing your passion a luxury in college, because unless you have resources from elsewhere, it's a very real possibility for some majors. And that's not even considering all the student loan debt accrued just from the process of getting the degree.

Amidst all the talk of "following your dreams," I'd like the chance to make an informed, adult decision about the education that impacts my earning potential for the rest of my life, and the education that I and my family have made a major investment in. I do want to be encouraged to explore and discover, to figure out what I'm passionate about. That will never be even close to unimportant. But I also want a dose of practicality. And once I make my decision -- with all the information -- I also want the guilt-tripping to stop. If I choose to double major in English and social work, so be it. If I choose to double major in engineering and accounting, so be it.

At the end of the day, I don't think it's as black and white as either doing what you absolutely love, or automatically living an unhappy life. Let's be clear: I'm never going to major in engineering because I really would be miserable, even though I'm well aware of how much money engineers make. Instead, this is about compromise. About understanding consequence. About asking questions most college students have never had to think about before, like what your true priorities are and how hard you're willing to work for something you love. This is about the other side of college, the one that's never quite taught but is still incredibly important -- the process of self development. And maturity. This is about figuring out how to function as an adult, with all the responsibility attached to that, in the real world. Because here's the thing: In four to five years, all of us newly minted freshmen are going to be sent into that real world and expected to make things work. And even more important than our major and associated earning potential will be the reasons behind it. Choosing a college major is one of our first major adult decisions, and it deserves to be treated as such -- with both the respect and practicality we ourselves are expected to accord to many of the similarly impactful decisions we'll have to make upon graduation.

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