Ask The Readers: If Parents Are Paying For College, Are Any Majors Off Limits?

After saving since your child was in preschool, you celebrate euphorically when your son or daughter is accepted to the college of his or her choice. You'd always imagined that your math whiz would become a chief financial officer (CFO), but are surprised when Junior says, “I'm leaning toward majoring in history.”

My friend Karen describes a similar scenario:

Our daughter worked hard throughout high school, earning nearly straight A's and assuming leadership positions in sports and clubs. Her passion for and success in speech and debate tournaments seemed to position her well for a career as an attorney.

Now that she has been accepted to college, she says she really wants to major in film studies with a goal to be involved in making movies. We are worried that this is a lot like wanting to become a rock star: a few people make a lot of money but there are many more struggling artists who barely get by.

My husband and I have worked hard to save for our daughter's education so that she should not have to take out much in student loans if she completes her degree in four years. But, we hadn't anticipated that our hard-earned dollars might go to pay for a course of study that has questionable financial prospects.

We are torn about whether to pay for her to study anything that she wants, or to withhold or limit our financial support if she insists on majoring in something we feel is frivolous.

If we “hold our nose” and write the checks, we risk wasting a lot of money on a degree that may not help our daughter launch a solid career. On the other hand, if she studies something she truly loves, she may ultimately become a success in her chosen field.

We are considering holding back some of the funds in her 529 plan, possibly rolling it over to one of her younger siblings. This is leading to conflict between us that I wish we could avoid at what should be an exciting time in her life.

What should Karen do?

It is certainly reasonable to guide a young adult toward a practical career when you are paying the bulk of the bill. New college graduates face a challenging employment landscape and should do whatever they can to increase their chances of finding productive work once they complete their degrees.

Parents do not “owe” their offspring a free college education, but those who have saved for college often understandably want to help their kids avoid as much debt as possible, and savings in 529 plans must be used for educational expenses to avoid tax penalties.

Karen's first option, paying the bills regardless of her child's concentration in college, preserves the right to say, “I told you so,” but should only be embraced if she believes that there is a way to turn just about any subject into a viable career.

If she's scrimped and saved for years and honestly feels that her daughter is dumping money down the drain, there is no reason to passively accept that fate. Karen could explain her concerns about the choice of major and insist that her daughter augment her education with coursework that Karen feels is appropriate. She might offer to pay for tuition, books, fees and living expenses in proportion to the practical courses studied each semester. The student would be expected to work and/or borrow to cover the proportion of expenses related to studies disapproved by Karen.

Ideally, Karen and her daughter will come to an agreement on a major that Karen doesn't mind financing. Whether that involves her daughter convincing her mother of the value of a film studies major, or both parties agreeing on some other course of study, doesn't matter.

How to think about choosing a major

Karen should outline a list of steps her daughter can take to convince her that a film studies major is reasonable, and explain that she will pay only as much as her conscience allows if she remains unconvinced. Potential requirements for her daughter could be:
  1. Review the Occupational Handbook at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and document the mean annual wage for people in her desired field, as well as the employment outlook for her intended profession.
  2. Ask her college to put her in touch with recent graduates in the same major and contact former students to find out about their post-college experience. Have they found work? Are they pleased with the pay and work environment? How optimistic are they about their career prospects? Is further education likely to be required?
  3. Contact the college's placement center or work with professors to identify relevant internship opportunities (even if unpaid) that may be available to students and approach companies or organizations to learn details of those internships.
  4. Participate in volunteer work that allows her to learn more about working in the film industry and build skills at the same time.

Karen should commit to keeping an open mind about the value of her daughter's proposed degree and insist that her daughter also keep an open mind. If it turns out there are more opportunities than she imagined available to film studies majors, Karen can pay as much as she can comfortably afford to support that degree pursuit. But, if her daughter discovers that the post-college road is bleak for those who majored in film studies, or similar subject, it would be wise to select a major with brighter prospects. It's always possible to take a few film studies courses for fun while concentrating elsewhere.

What would you do? Would you let your child choose any major?