3 Reasons Why U.S. Students Struggle Selecting a Major / Career Today


There’s no shortage of advice out there on how to pick a college major or career.

So why does the vast majority of high school, college-bound and college students still struggle?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • About 80% of college-bound students have yet to choose a major
  • About 80% of college students change their major at least once
  • On average, college students change their major at least three times over the course of their college career

This problem has gone on for far too long!

And while many think we’re making it easier and better for them, we’re actually making their choice far more difficult. And here are my Top 3 underlying root causes as to why:

1. U.S. Government, Military, Education and Related Stakeholder Initiatives

The U.S. Government, large organizations, education institutions, foundations, think tanks and their lobbyists, all push students to go, where they believe they should go – where they want them to go. And countless media outlets support them by sharing their reports and messages.

The largest and most significant example is The America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007. Or more commonly referred to as the America COMPETES Act, signed by President George W. Bush, and became law on August 9th, 2007.

This was an Act, “To invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States”, in a number of areas, but most notably, in science, technology, engineering and math, or better known as STEM.

The bill was in response to a highly influential National Academy of Sciences report, chaired by Norman Augustine, a retired CEO of Lockheed Martin, and former Undersecretary of the Army, titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm.

The report created widespread concern that the U.S. was “falling behind its international competitors” in basic research, innovation, and education, that has historically fueled economic growth, prosperity, and well-being in our country.

Alarmed by this report, the America COMPETES Act 5-year budget started at $5.9 billion, and increased to $6.8 billion by 2011.

The America COMPETES Act was reauthorized in 2010 and signed into law by President Obama. However, Congress did not appropriate the recommended funds. Regardless, according to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, the 2015 Fiscal Budget still request investments of $2.9 billion in numerous STEM education programs, which is an increase of 3.7 percent over 2014.

That’s an enormous amount of money, aimed at thousands of programs inside and outside of our school systems, encouraging/pushing students towards a career in STEM, all because we’re “falling behind our international competitors.”

Here’s a graphic that illustrates the issue many believe we have, and how it’s supported and promoted by various organizations and media outlets.  Make note of the various sources at the bottom of the graphic.


Despite now spending around $3 billion annually, specifically on STEM programs, the U.S. has fallen further, and now ranks 25th in math and 17th in science, when compared to other countries on international assessments.

And yet, our “leaders” in government and education, along with countless other stakeholders, continue to push this message about the need for more people to follow a career in STEM so that “we can compete”, while countless media organizations continue to spread their message – continuously refueling efforts to push students towards careers in these areas, to a tune much much larger than $3B a year.

I’m not saying that our low scores aren’t a problem, but pushing students towards a career, because “we’re falling behind our international competitors” clearly isn’t solving the problem.

Moreover, I don’t believe that it’s ultimately in our best interest, individually or collectively.

Neither is pushing students towards jobs and careers because of a “skills gap” – it’s like saying we’ve run out of widgets and we need more. And that’s exactly what some organizations and their supposed leaders are actually saying. As a result, is that the best way for students to choose a degree and a career? Best for whom?

I’m not saying we should discourage people from going into a STEM related degree or career either; I was in the technology industry for most of my career. However, there is a better way to solve these problems, and it starts by sending a much better, much more consistent and genuine message.

One where we actually help every student discover where their own greatest natural potential is:

  • Where they can ultimately do their best work
  • Where they can make their greatest impact and where they’re needed most in the world as a result
  • Where they’ll be most appreciated and valued as a result of who they are and the value they uniquely provide

As opposed to pushing them where others think they should go – where others want and need them to go, so we can win.

Not only are we sending the wrong message, but we’re sending mixed messages. Here’s a great example; it’s an excerpt from a speech that President Obama made on June 11, 2014, at the Worcester Technical High School commencement ceremony, in Worcester Massachusetts.

“Now, it’s a challenging time. I think sometimes I worry that your generation has grown up in a cynical time — in the aftermath of a Great Recession, in the aftermath of two wars. We live in a culture that so often focuses on conflict and controversy and looks at the glass half empty instead of half full. And you’re graduating at a time when you’ll no longer be competing just with people across town for good jobs, you’re going to be competing with the rest of the world.

But when I meet young people like you I am absolutely certain we are not just going to out-compete the rest of the world, we are going to win because of you. Because we are Americans, that’s what we do. We don’t settle. We outwork. We out-innovate. We out-hustle the competition. (Applause.) And when we do, nobody can beat us.

And that’s what you’ve shown at this school — not just helping a few kids go as far as their hard work will take them. I want all of you to be part of the process of helping all our young people achieve their God-given potential. And as President, my job is to make sure every child in America gets that chance.”

While it was intended to be an inspirational, and I believe he probably did inspire most if not all of the students, teachers, community leaders and parents in attendance, I believe that he’s sending the wrong message, along with a very mixed and confusing one.

The full speech can be seen here, but about half-way through, he starts this section of the speech worrying that “we live in a culture that so often focuses on conflict,” but then he immediately tells the audience how “we’re going to out-compete the rest of the world” and how “we are going to win”, because he’s going to “help every child achieve their God-given potential.

First, while competition in sports and other endeavors requires a winner and a loser, we have to stop seeing one’s success in work/life as zero-sum game; that for one to win, another has to lose.

As an example, when Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel peace Prize this year, is it best that we believe that countless others working on peace around the world lost, because she won?

Second, Malala grew up in Pakistan, so should we be upset that an American didn’t “beat her” for the Nobel prize? 

When Brené Brown shares her discoveries on shame and vulnerability with the world, does that mean others around the world should be ashamed that they didn’t discover it first?

Should we be ashamed that Mother Theresa was born in Macedonia, and worked tirelessly in so many other parts of the world, but not in the U.S.? 

I hope not!

It’s one thing to be proud of your citizen’s and your nation’s accomplishments, but it’s quite another to believe that other people or nations have to lose, if and when you excel.

Most notably, confusing and concerning, does President Obama, along with other elected officials and educators in the U.S., only want American children to “achieve their God-given potential,” so that America can win?

If it’s truly “God-given potential”, shouldn’t that trump any nation’s border? Or is it only an American God they believe in – that the U.S. is the only “nation under God” that matters?

Moreover, are we truly trying to help every child find their “true” / “God-given potential”, when we spend more than $130 billion only educating them in a handful of subjects, and then push them towards specific careers our government and “leaders” believe are most important?

I do believe his intentions are/were good, but what message does he and countless others American “leaders” and educators send our children and the world?

Sadly, our outdated industrial education system continues to be fueled by our enormous industrial and governmental beliefs and desires, and it’s no wonder so many high school and college students struggle to figure out what’s right for them; especially those that are completely disinterested in things related to STEM or where the perceived skills gap currently is.

Again, I’m not saying that we don’t have a problem with low test scores and grades, because we absolutely do, and we have serious challenges throughout our education system and country. However, that’s a completely separate issue from whether or not our government and resulting education system should be trying to steer our children’s careers where they believe they should go.

While many children don’t wonder or care about science or technology related subjects, there are plenty of children who do and who thankfully will someday. We (government, educators and parents) simply have to do a far better job helping every child discover and ignite their own curiosity and sense of wonder, so that they can teach us about what they’ve discovered one day; instead of pushing them towards a career because we want to win, or because we need them to fill jobs some day; both of which are lousy motivators!

Instead, imagine if we took the $3B a year the government spends on STEM, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall education budget of $130B a year, and we helped every child discover where their own greatest natural, renewable resource for curiosity iswhere their own creativity and imagination naturally flows from – ultimately yielding new discoveries in every facet of human life.

Imagine if every student, every person in the U.S. and around the world, was a modern day explorer; waking up every single day, eager to get back to work and chase down answers to their own most profound questions – fully engaged in their work; eagerly and vigorously searching high and low, to the ends of the earth and the distant galaxies, for answers to their own questions about art or architecture, about music or medicine, about peace or poverty, about renewable energy or the future of transportation, about human suffering or about human potential.

Regardless of their field of endeavor, we need new discoveries in every aspect of our lives, to improve the human condition and our experience.  Therefore, we should encourage every student to chase their own passionate curiosity and sense of wonder, so that they can share their own discoveries with the world someday; instead of pushing them to chase an education, job and/or career, because there’s a perceived skills gap, or because our “leaders” want to win.

I guarantee that the U.S. and the world, will be far better off if we did. And I believe it would be far easier for students to select their own passionate pursuit of answers in their life’s work.


2. Reports & Lists on the Hot & Best Jobs


Every year and few times a year, government organizations, leading publishers and media outlets share a list of “Hot Jobs” available now, and projected for the future, along with their average salaries.  And not surprisingly, STEM and “skills gap” related jobs are always on the top of the list.

These lists have been published for years, and it’s nothing new; a Google search on “list of hot jobs” returns 581,000,000 results.

However, since the economy hasn’t fully recovered and the unemployment rate is still relatively high, more and more of the reports and lists focus on “the best-paying jobs.”

best paying jobs for recent grads (1)

Again, while this seems like great advice, and most of the intentions are good, we’re sending the wrong message and there are unintended consequences as a result.

Of course we want everyone to get a great job, and we want everyone to make a great living, but the message we actually end up sending is; since “these jobs are hot”, available and they pay well, it’s what you and everyone should want to do. Period.

As a result, these lists limit the scope of their thinking.  These lists also make it harder for most to make the right choice, if they had always thought about a different career.

What if their talent, creativity and imagination, is far greater in another area? What if they’d achieve far more success and have a greater impact as a result? What if they have the potential to help us solve far more problems in another area, and what if they’d be much happier as a result?

What if some of them could be…

  • Phenomenal teachers, but only average engineers?
  • Phenomenal police officers and firefighters, but only average scientists?
  • Phenomenal waiters, waitresses, bartenders and chefs, but bored, unengaged and uninspiring mathematicians or economists?
  • Phenomenal car mechanics, but average or below average, uninspired and unengaged software developers?
  • Phenomenal drug addiction and suicide counselors, but only average technologists?
  • Phenomenal conflict resolution experts and peace negotiators, but only average scientists?
  • Phenomenal local, state and national elected officials, or unengaged, uninspired, unhappy, unsuccessful doing anything else?

Wouldn’t we rather have everyone in a job where they’re phenomenal at what they do, and love what they do as a result? Wouldn’t they rather be? Wouldn’t we all be happier and better off?

Would we all rather be phenomenal at something, admired, appreciated and appropriately valued for it; versus, going into a career simply because it was on the list of hot jobs, or because it paid well, or because our “leaders” thought it was in the best interest of our country?

All you have to do is look at Gallup’s annual report on the State of the American/Global Workforce.   In last years State of the Global Workforce report, they reported that only 13% of the worldwide workforce is engaged in their work, but it’s even worse for college-educated Americans, as they reported in last years State of the American Workforce.

In the U.S., higher educational attainment is not related to workplace engagement. In fact, American workers with a college or postgraduate degree are slightly less likely than those with a high school diploma or less to be engaged at work.

More evidence that we’re still pushing students into the wrong degrees and careers, for the wrong reasons; including our elected officials!

Therefore, while it’s great news that there is job growth in certain areas, and we should let people know, I would argue that pushing students/people towards a career in a field because some believe that they’re the “best jobs” or the latest “hot jobs”, and/or because there’s a “skills gap”, is the wrong motivator and message to send.

It’s not solving the problem, and it’s making their degree and career choice much more difficult.

Instead, let’s help them discover where they can do their best work – where they can make their greatest impact, and where they’d be most appreciated and valued as a result.


3. The Promoted & Perceived Value & ROI of a College Education



Years ago, a college education and/or degree from an institution of higher learning, was primarily focused on advancing one’s understanding of the subjects they were most interested in. “Higher learning” meant more and better learning. And the real and perceived value of the return on their investment was determined by how much and how hard they worked, and the knowledge a student gained as a result.

Additionally, the more prestige the college or university had and the more costly the education, the more it was assumed that students gained a deeper and better understanding of the subjects they learned. As a result, the perceived value of their education was greater, and so to was the return on their investment.

While people either consciously or subconsciously actually calculated an ROI, their value was squarely placed on the knowledge and understanding they gained, along with the degree from their particular university, and not yet valued based primarily on the job, career and/or income that would eventually be derived.

However, the post-secondary education landscape has changed significantly over the last 40 years; costs have skyrocketed even though competition has dramatically increased, while the perceived and real value of the ROI of a post-secondary education has changed, along with what we’re measuring it against.

As this trend continues, our children see and hear more news and concerns about the financial return on the investment, or lack thereof, as pressure mounts from parents and society, for 17 and 18 year old students to make the right choice.

Just this month, on October 13th 2014, CNBC’s personal finance correspondent Sharon Epperson reported, in a “How to choose your college career” segment,  that recent studies have shown that the average person who graduated with a bachelor’s degree makes about $48k per year. But 25% of those recent graduates, only makes about $27k per year; which is only $2k more than the average high school graduate.

Then she goes on to say; “It’s important to get your degree where the jobs are. So look for fields like Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, where you can find significant job growth.”

“So how can you secure a ‘great’ job?” she asks. “Well, a lot of it depends on your major, the school you attend, and how much you pay for that degree, in order to ensure it’s a worthy investment.”

As a personal finance correspondent, I am not surprised that she’s primarily focused on the financial ROI, and that she sees a “great job” as one that returns the greatest amount of money. She works for CNBC after all.

However, while I agree that it’s good advice to consider, it’s only one of many things students should consider, and I don’t believe that it should be the most important thing to consider. Unfortunately though, this is one of the most common messages students are getting these days.  As a result, even though I’m confident that Sharon and others that share this view, do have the best intentions, there are unintended consequences from their message.

Sharon’s report, and countless others like it, like Payscale’s “College ROI Report“, perpetuate the problem of a degree simply being a piece of paper and a right of passage to enter “the best job market”, by making the ROI of an education solely about the ROI of a job/career.

While we certainly want high school and college students to think about the return on their investment in school and in life, I would argue that the ROI for school, should primarily be measured by the quality of their education, and “how much they truly learned”, from the subjects they are most curious about.

Moreover, the return on their education investment should be measured by the degree to which we truly turn students into passionately curious, life-long learners – adults that truly yearn to chase down answers to their own curiosity and childlike sense of wonder – chasing down answers to their own most burning questions, along with answers to the problems they most desire to help solve.

And engagement should be measured by the degree to which they tap into their own natural curiosity and childlike sense of wonder – by the degree to which they unleash and unlock their own natural creativity and imagination, and share their own discoveries with the world around them, and ultimately impacting those around them as a result.

After all, isn’t it their mind we most need?

What’s the true cost to us individually and collectively, if we discourage people from chasing their own curiosity and sense of wonder?  What if their curiosity and life’s work isn’t on the list for the best perceived ROI?  What if their greatest potential for creativity and imagination resides elsewhere? What if we’re holding them back from great discoveries that could significantly impact the world?

  • What if Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Mozart had all been pushed towards other careers?
  • What if Martin Luther King had been discouraged to chase down answers to his own questions about inequality and injustice?
  • What if John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had been pushed in other directions?
  • What if Eisenhower and Churchill had been encouraged and persuaded to go down different roads?
  • What if Oprah Winfrey had been more discouraged to pursue her own path?
  • What if Newton, Tesla, Einstein and Hawking had all been told to stop daydreaming and wondering about things that others couldn’t imagine or comprehend?
  • What if Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk had all been pushed down other paths that their parents, educators/government thought were best?
  • What if the Taliban had won, and Malala Yousafzai had been prevented from pursuing her own curiosity and sense of wonder about why girls and women aren’t treated equally and why they aren’t allowed to pursue their own dreams?



Thankfully, Malala and the others, all pursued their own most profound and passionate curiosities, in hope of sharing their own discoveries with the world someday; instead of chasing a career and life, based on what others believe is more and/or most important?

Bottom Line

We (you and I) need to continue to enhance and improve the human condition and our experience while we’re here, and for future generations. Which means, each and every one of us needs to help advance our understanding in a given area of our lives – not just some of us, and not just in “some areas” of our lives.

Therefore, each and every one of us, needs to stop telling children and students to be curious about what we think and believe is most important, and encourage each and every child to chase their own most profound curiosity and sense of wonder, so that they too can share their own discoveries with the world someday – ultimately improving and enhancing our lives, along with future generations.

That’s why curiosity exists!!

Each and every single human being’s own curiosity and sense of wonder matters!

And each and every one of us needs to realize that there’s a profound reason why.

Learn more about Realizing The Significance of Your Own Curiosity here

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  1. November 3, 2014

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