College Majors vs. Minors: What’s the Difference?
- Most schools require students to declare a major in their first two years of college.
- A student's choice of major can greatly impact their lifetime earnings.
- While potentially valuable, a minor should not detract from your major area of study.
Once upon a time, everyone who went to college studied the same thing, receiving what was called a liberal education. Although course options have increased over time, colleges still seek to impart the broad knowledge and transferable skills associated with this type of curriculum through general education requirements, which represent up to half of the college credits required to graduate.
A student's remaining credits are dedicated to classes within their chosen major and/or minor. Typically, students choose a major — i.e., a particular course of study, such as biology, African American studies, or political science — during their first two years of college.
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Students should gain exposure to a variety of academic fields before choosing a major.
When deciding on a major or minor, students should consider their passions and strengths, as well as the projected job market for their field of interest.
Unfortunately, many students lack guidance and context when making this decision. As a result, a few familiar majors, like psychology and communications, attract outsized portions of incoming students who may know little to nothing about other majors, minors, and career tracks.
Ideally, students should gain exposure to a variety of fields before choosing a degree program, but they should also avoid waiting too long to make a decision. After all, the longer it takes to complete a bachelor's degree, the more expensive it gets.
A college minor, while a potentially valuable way to explore a new field or supplement your major studies, can also lengthen your course of study without necessarily paying off. Knowing what you want to study will ensure that you graduate on time — and on budget.
What Is a Major in College?
A college major refers to your course of study's primary focus while pursuing a bachelor's degree. Students commit to their academic majors at different times. Some go into college knowing exactly what they want to study, whereas others take years to decide.
Additionally, many students think they know what field they want to focus on but change their minds once they start school.
Academic majors are specialized programs offered within larger schools or colleges. Popular divisions of majors include the following:
Arts and humanities
Health and medicine
Public and social services
Science, technology, engineering, and math
For example, a given university's College of Arts and Humanities may offer majors in English, history, philosophy, and religious studies, with some overlapping course requirements between the degree programs.
Students sometimes take advantage of overlapping course requirements by double majoring. This means simultaneously earning two majors that fall under the same degree type (e.g., a bachelor of science or a bachelor of arts.)
Not everyone agrees on the value of a double major, though. Unless the course requirements for the majors align closely, pursuing two majors may extend your graduation timeline beyond four years.
What Is a Minor in College?
A minor is a secondary focus, after your major, that allows you to pursue a personal interest and demonstrate extra value to future employers.
Guidance counselors are divided over the value of declaring a minor in college.
Guidance counselors are divided over the value of declaring a minor, as it can easily prolong the time to graduation if not carefully scheduled. To complete a minor, students typically take around half as many credits in a secondary subject as they take for their major.
Another difference between a major and a minor is that a major appears on your diploma, while a minor doesn't. Despite this, minors can provide extra detail on a resume when appropriate.
In some fields, a minor allows graduates to display their specialization or get a head start if they plan on pursuing another degree. For example, students who plan on becoming high school teachers often minor in education and major in the topic they want to teach.
Some Majors Are More Lucrative Than Others
Income data indicates that college tends to pay off, but not all majors offer the same financial benefits.
Many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors top PayScale's list of the highest-paying jobs that require a bachelor's degree. Graduates in these areas can make over $75,000 per year early on in their careers.
Areas of study that lead to lucrative career opportunities attract many students. In addition to being some of the highest-paying college majors, STEM and business are the most popular fields of study, accounting for 46% of college graduates. This means that some of the most academically challenging majors are also some of the most competitive.
“The top-paying college majors earn $3.4 million more than the lowest-paying majors over a lifetime.” Source: — The Economic Value of College Majors, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
However, not all learners are cut out for the rigors of STEM curricula. Many students who enroll in these fields ultimately decide to switch majors.
While it's important to understand the projected income of different majors when considering your educational options, this shouldn't be your only concern. Numerous variables contribute to the overall quality of a career. For example, none of the highest-earning majors on PayScale rank similarly high for personal meaning and societal value.
Many College Students Switch Majors at Least Once
Declaring a college major helps set your future career in motion, but career trajectories change over time, both during college and long after.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 33% of bachelor's degree students switch their majors at least once. And even those who don't often wish they had: A recent BestColleges survey found that 61% of college graduates would go back and switch their majors if they could.
Changing majors usually means taking additional classes and more time to graduate. The average bachelor's degree recipient takes and pays for 135 credits — about 15 more than they need to graduate.
“Approximately half of all U.S. adults who pursued or completed a postsecondary degree would change at least one aspect of their education experience if they could do it all over again, including their major.” Source: — 2016 Education Consumer Pulse Survey, Gallup and Strada Education Network
Although switching majors can extend the graduation timeline, it doesn't necessarily derail the college experience. A 2016 study suggests that students who change majors actually graduate at slightly higher rates than those who don't.
Waiting to declare a major and switching majors is easy to do at many schools, and lots of students need the extra time and guidance to decide. With a growing number of first-generation students, more people are arriving at college uncertain of what they want to do.
Many universities allow students to remain undecided and explore their interests; however, some schools require students to declare a major on their college application.
Furthermore, some large flagship universities and private research institutions require students to apply directly to a certain school or college within the university. But acceptance into one program doesn't mean acceptance into all programs. A student hoping to switch from a Spanish major to their institution's engineering program, for example, would have to go through the full admissions process a second time.
For Some Careers, Choosing a Major Is the First Step
Most white-collar jobs require a bachelor's degree, but holding one doesn't mean as much as it used to. It may take a master's, doctorate, or other certification to stand out in a crowded field. Someone with a major in business, for instance, might pursue an MBA in order to level up their skills and signal their value to future employers.
Other fields boast a longer tradition of requiring a graduate degree. Students whose hands-on training and ability to practice hinge on getting a postbaccalaureate education — including aspiring doctors and lawyers — may actually have more flexibility when it comes to choosing an undergraduate major.
Some schools offer pre-professional majors, such as pre-med and pre-law pathways, but many institutions encourage learners to choose any major they like, so long as they manage to check off the coursework requirements for medical or law school.
Soft Skills Gained in College Hold Long-Lasting Value
The major and minor a student chooses can have a large impact on what industry they enter, what jobs they qualify for, and how much money they earn. But the most important things a student learns in college might not even relate specifically to their major or minor.
While hard skills and specific information often have a limited shelf life, soft skills — like critical thinking and creativity — retain their value and can be adapted over time. These skills are thought to be developed through general education courses, making the liberal arts core of the college curriculum particularly valuable for students.
Still, it's critical that you choose the right major and minor. Consider your passions, skills, and goals to ensure you find success in your academic and professional endeavors.
Feature Image: Tom Werner/DigitalVision/Getty Images
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