It's not just parents who look at the prestige of the college and disregard community college or other less elite options. My kid will probably have a nervous breakdown if she doesn't get into one of her top choice schools or if I can't pay for it. She wants to go into a field that demands a degree that is not available at our local cheap 4-year school (or even most large state universities). And to top it all off, it's a field with very poor employment prospects. I love her and I really believe in her abilities, but at what point do you say to a kid, get real and major in something where you can actually get a job? In other words, do I work myself to death to put her through a great program and let the world deliver the reality check, or do I shatter her dreams myself? If you have kids, you know the answer to that. (BTW, I went to community college and finished up at the very same local 4-year cheap university she could attend. Then again, I had very different goals.)
The question is, what should Jennifer’s daughter major in?
If she can get into the Holy trinity of HavardPrincetonYale, then she should major in whatever she wants, because no doubt with a such an elite degree and decent looks and personality, a young woman can find gainful employment in a good career track .
However, as a college student attends schools with less prestige, it becomes ever more important to select a practical major. The History major from Harvard can get recruited to work in investment banking, but the History major from a directional university is out of luck.
In my famous blog post on why a career in computer programming sucks, I recommended accounting. So let me explain this recommendation in greater detail.
Accounting is a great general purpose business major that can lead to all sorts of business jobs. When employers encounter an undergraduate majoring in some other business major, such as marketing, business administration, or even finance, they assume that they couldn’t cut the mustard in accounting. Accounting is at the core of all business. If you’re at a good enough of a school such that investment banks will consider you, the accounting major will look great to them. They want to hire people who can read and understand financial statements. Unless you intend to get a job as a “quant jock” at a hedge fund (and good luck with that if you can’t get into a top 5 school), the accounting degree will open a lot more doors in finance than a degree in finance.
The best thing about a degree in accounting is that it uniquely qualifies you to get hired as an auditor with a Big Four accounting firm. Unlike many other career tracks, you don’t need to go to an elite school to get an entry level auditing job. The Big Four needs to hire a lot of auditors, and most of the Ivy League schools don’t even offer accounting degrees. Havard is so snobby, it doesn’t even offer a single accounting class.
Accounting jobs are unlikely to be outsourced. Companies don’t trust their financial secrets to an outsourcing firm in India. The traditional auditing function performed by public accounting firms have to be performed onsite. The partners at the Big Four are the ones in charge of setting the rules for their profession, so naturally they stack the deck to favor themselves. Like BIGLAW and investment banking, public accounting firms act primarily for the benefit of their own employees rather than for outside stockholders.
Just hanging around the B4 firm for the rest of one’s life is a pretty decent and safe career track. B4 partners don’t make as much as BIGLAW partners, but they can still make as much as half a million a year if based in Manhattan, which is almost enough money to afford the American Dream of a three bedroom condo and private school for two children.
However, with a few years of B4 on your resume, plus a CPA designation, you can jump ship and find a manager-level accounting position in corporate America. You can go back to school to get an MBA. Business schools may claim they like diversity among their students, but people who worked at B4 are not really discriminated against in the admissions process, and it looks many times better than working as a waiter.
The 18-year-old student to whom this advice is given may protest, “but I’m not good at math.” Accounting doesn’t really require much in the way of advanced math, just arithmetic. Your program might insist that you take a calculus class, but you’ll never use it for anything outside of the calculus class.
The 18-year-old may also protest, “but accounting is boring.” The sad truth is that there are only a tiny number of fun and interesting jobs available to recent college graduates, and because they are so highly desired and so few in number, you are shut out of them unless you have an Ivy League degree, preferably from HarvardPrincetonYale. Rich parents with important connections also helps. Otherwise, the job you get will be boring. You might as well do something boring that has a decent future ahead of it.
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To answer a question raised in the comments, B4 entry level salary in New York City is said to be $55K. A little bit less in other major metropolitan areas. This is not such a bad salary for a FIRST job. Maybe you, initially, might make more money as an engineer, but engineering quickly plateaus, then you get fired and replaced by younger engineers who know the latest technology.
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Read my follow-up post.