Should Major Decisions Be So... Major? Career-worthy Majors for All

New information released on the economic value of different college degrees just upped the ante on an already major life decision. America's college students - whether they are high school graduates or an increasing number of middle-aged adults pursuing bachelors degrees - face dramatically varying risks and returns depending on their chosen major.

The report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce found the highest-paying college majors earn $3.4 million more throughout their careers than the lowest-paying majors. The center used U.S. Census data to analyze the wages of 137 college majors and found this wage disparity among majors increases over time.

While the degree decision is powerful, the report is careful to point out that that "degrees are not destiny." Renowned for its incisive research, the center's data is important for students, but it is just as important for those involved in delivering higher education.

The truth is all college degree programs can and must do a better job delivering value in career and life. The answer is as simple as a more concerted effort to ensure all majors are strongly connected to careers. Here are three ideas:

1. Go beyond surveys of CEOs and HR managers and engage those closer to the actual work graduates will be doing, including line managers and heads of work groups. Plenty of data exists that shows employers are dissatisfied with graduates' preparation, but let's get more specific about what to change and how. The best way to do that is to ask the people in the know. The information gleaned can feed the process administrators and faculty use to determine what students need to know, understand and be able to do upon graduation - both within the major program area and as part of the general education they receive.

2. Hardwire the feedback loop between employers and educators. Faculty may spend considerable time and effort developing their expected learning outcomes, assignments and assessments, but the feedback loop that shapes how and what they teach often doesn't include student outcomes after graduation. To address this gap, more than 500 institutions across the U.S. are engaged in Tuning and using the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). Tuning is a faculty-driven process that identifies what a student should know and be able to do in a chosen discipline when a degree has been earned - an associate, bachelor's or master's. The process is designed to make higher education outcomes more transparent to all stakeholders, including students, employers, and parents, and to ensure the quality of degrees across institutions.

DQP looks beyond the discipline of study to the overall skills, knowledge and ability acquired in the college experience at each degree level: associate, bachelor and masters. For example employers want graduates to be able to collect, weigh and interpret evidence to make a decision. They also value the ability to work in groups and persist in resolving a problem until it's solved.

3. Make degree relevance to career clear to students. Faculty generally do not see themselves in the job training business, but rather in the education business - imparting intellectual skills and habits of learning. That is why you will hear educators talk about content and employers talk about skills. Faculty should help students articulate the skills and knowledge they develop to future employers in terms employers value, i.e. resolving problems, managing and analyzing complex information, conducting research and making comparisons, and delivering persuasive oral and written presentations.

Students in majors like engineering tend to learn and apply relevant skills, because industry is often directly involved with the college and what is taught. Disciplines like psychology and history are often not as well connected. Stanford University is testing "scholarship records", which are electronic learning portfolios that help students understand more about their learning and share it with employers upon graduation. This work could lead the way to aligning what employers want with what educators do to get students ready for the world of work.

Federal and state government leaders and accreditors are using a package of carrots and sticks to fix the broken signals between the world of college and career, but it will happen much faster if all parties take more responsibility for results and better articulate links between education, career preparation, and workplace demands.

In a blog post, history professor Anne Hyde, describes her nervousness in speaking to the father of a student about what a history major can do in the real world. "Students, and their families, won't simply trust us about the utility and value of a history degree," Hyde writes. "We need to know what our students do with their degrees, how employers perceive history degrees, and the range of skills that a history major provides."

America's postsecondary educational institutions comprise the largest career preparation system in the world, but its value is in serious question. A more concerted effort to connect college and career will put students on a path of learning what they love, loving what they learn and preparing them for the workforce. Now that's a valuable major.