Follow your Passion?

When I was growing up many adults told me that the most important thing to consider in selecting a college major or in pursuing a career was to “follow your passion.” After all, I was told, what could be worse than to labor for a lifetime doing something that you disliked? No money could be worth this, I was told. Happiness, of course, is more important than money.

The advice to follow your passion held up pretty well during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Plenty of my friends majored in areas like English, social work, and history. While most didn’t get jobs in their areas of interest, there were banks, insurance companies, and other businesses that were willing to take in my friends and teach them the ropes. History could be an avocation even if it couldn’t be a vocation. My history-loving friends found out that It isn’t the end of the world to be a banker 5 days a week and to be a civil war re-enactor on the weekends.

I was always suspicious of the “follow your passion” idea but I’m now convinced that it is not only bad advice, but downright dangerous for today’s students. In our global economy those with “hard skills” such as computer science, engineering, mathematical aptitude, or financial expertise will make exceptional money. Those without these hard skills will labor in poorly paid professions and struggle to pay their bills for a lifetime. Unable to get a high-paying job in their twenties, many “soft-skilled” people will linger with marginal paying gigs until they are well into their thirties. By then the opportunity to establish profitable personal contacts in the well-paying professions will have passed. They will spend the rest of their lives struggling financially.

The monetary investment for a college education has little return for soft skilled majors, who would have made higher incomes in the skilled trades (electrician, plumber).  For many families who’s children invest in soft skilled majors there is actually a zero monetary return on a college degree. It is a wonderful day when your child walks across the stage to receive his college diploma. This is tempered by the bittersweet reality of seeing him working for $10 an hour alongside a high school graduate in a retail store. “But my kid is intelligent and is a college graduate”, you say. “Show me his real skills”, replies the market.

When children of Indian (Asia) descent tell their parents that they want to study sociology or history, her parents straighten her out right away. Such foolish thoughts are not tolerated, even for a second. She’s given a math book and told that she’s going to study medicine or engineering and THAT’S THAT! A few years later she has a promising career as a medical doctor or as a research scientist.

I once met taxi driver in Chicago that railed on and on about the discrimination that his people feel in the job market. He told me that he knew a black taxi driver in Chicago who had a Ph.D. Intrigued, I asked him in what subject his colleague held a Ph.D. It turns out that the Ph.D. was from a very mediocre university and was in Black History. I held my tongue, but was saddened that his friend has spent so much time on a worthless Ph.D.

Economists know that the marginal returns on education decline with each level of schooling. The return on a grade school education is the highest (basic literacy has a huge return), with progressively lower “marginal” returns for high school, Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. degrees. This blog has focused only on the Bachelor’s degree. Hopefully fewer people will be fooled in the future and realize that ignoring the return on educational investments is a huge mistake that may last a lifetime.  Real skills, whether they be learned in college or in the trades, are extremely important.  Believe me students, passion loses its luster when you can’t pay the bills.

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