Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.
Looks like a practical type. Photo by Nic McPhee, Flickr Creative Commons.

“What’s your major?”

Often the reasons for choosing engineering or English extend beyond the student’s enthusiasm for the subject. Sociologist Kim Weeden explains to The Atlantic that parental income can play a part: students from wealthy families are more likely to study humanities and fine arts, while their lower-income peers tend to choose more “practical” majors like physics, engineering, or computer science. Weeden says:

It’s … consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment.

In other words, if wealthy students cannot get lucrative jobs with a ceramics or history degree, they have a monetary safety net. NYU’s Dalton Conley elaborates:

It might seem like there’s a lot of social mobility that the offspring of doctors are artists, or what have you, but maybe they traded off occupational autonomy and freedom … They still have a high education level and they still have wealth.

Future employment is not the only explanation for why students from different income brackets choose their courses of study. Often, students from higher-income families have more prior exposure to arts, music, and literature, sparking an interest in these areas before college. Furthermore, according to Conley, the prestige of a major and its associated careers may matter more than the size of the actual paycheck:

There’s a notion that what people are maximizing is not income, per se, or wealth, per se, or prestige, per se, but just there’s a general sense of social class, and people in each generation make trade-offs.

A fine arts degree may have fewer career opportunities, but it also has an association with high socioeconomic status that a law enforcement degree does not.