The Washington Post recently published an article which breaks down the regrets that many Americans have surrounding their major and school choice. With data coming from the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking published by the federal reserve, the Washington Post created the following chart.

This is a breakdown of the percentage of graduates who regret their school but not necessarily their major choice. The following graph shows major choice.

One of the drumbeats around college reform, especially when it comes to “employability” has been to stop students from majoring in perceptively “soft” majors like gender studies or sociology and instead direct them to trade schools. Trade schools on average leave students with less debt, and they theoretically leave students in a better position to obtain a career. One of the highest profile advocates for trades schools is Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe, who has a website dedicated to promoting the idea of trade schools. 

But while it is clear that almost half of “Humanities and arts” graduates regret their major, trade school does not do a lot better. It seems clear that students in both groups are more likely to regret their major and school choice than almost any other students.

The Washington Post makes the point that liberal arts students might be responding to “pervasive social cues” and it is entirely possible that the same is true for vocational students. In fact,, a lot of what Rowe is saying is in response to negative stigma that people, especially parents, have towards trade schools.

So in many ways the “why” here is absolutely key in determining whether we should put effort into convincing people that trade schools and humanities majors are good, or in guiding students towards more explicitly STEM majors.

Whether it is because of the negative feelings towards vocational school or because of other factors, enrollment dropped sharply during COVID, a time when overall enrollment dropped by only 2.5%.

It is also interesting to note that grouping humanities and arts together is a decision made by the survey creators, not the Washington Post. A trend in educational circles is to add “arts” into the traditional STEM list, turning it into STEAM. The rationale is that the arts contain solutions to problems which can’t necessarily be found in STEM alone, creating jobs like Technical Artist and fields like 3D printing.

Because the arts here is grouped with the humanities it is hard to decipher whether that is playing out with the population in general, but it is interesting to note that the Washington Post chose to group in medicine in the following chart, making the acronym STEMM.

Kudos to the Post on its chart names. 

If we take a look at’s list of median student debt by major, we can see that the Social Sciences and Humanities are fairly highly represented in majors that have a high student debt balance. The role that this plays or the difficulty felt in repaying the loans is unclear, but it seems very sensible that it could have a role.

There are several more majors in between these two halves. For the full list, visit the site linked above.

It is interesting to note that several Humanities and Social Sciences also rank on this list, so their prevalence on the upper half of the list might have more to do with the total number of areas of study within the Humanities than anything else. 

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