Do You Have a Right to Choose Your Child’s Degree or Major?

My Boy Holding The Wife's Camera
My Boy Holding The Wife’s Camera

I tweeted this picture a little over a week ago:

twitter mjtm status

The conversation became lively but left me with the question – can a parent who is paying for college choose a degree or major?

Can a Parent Choose a Child’s College Degree?

I think the answer depends on how involved the parent is on a financial level. I think the more money you, as a parent ,are on the hook for the more say you should have in your child’s degree.  If a child is paying his way 100% then in reality a parent shouldn’t have a say, although what parent doesn’t have an opinion? and what parent doesn’t share that opinion?

If I am paying for my Son’s degree I will be damned if he ends up with an art history or creative writing degree at a private university.  If the world stays the same then there is just no justification for a $200,000+ degree for the ability (unless you are in the 1% of the degree recipients) to make $40,000 per year.  Just doesn’t make financial sense when there are State Schools that might make it a bit more reasonable (and even that I am not sure I am for).

My Experience

My parents despite supporting me financially through college did not choose my major (Business Economics) nor any of my siblings (Exercise Physiology and Neuro-Psychology). To be fair none of us had true liberal art majors so maybe it would have been different if I told pops, “I want a degree focused on the indigenous people of West Bumble-Fuck.”

 

How do you think you’ll handle your Kids? Were your parents involved in your choice of Major if you went to College?

 

39 Responses to Do You Have a Right to Choose Your Child’s Degree or Major?

  1. I have a lot of emotions and thoughts about this topic and I’ll preface this by saying that I’m a professional photographer as well as holding a technical day job. I have a degree in History and Anthropology. FWIW.

    I honestly don’t think a parent should dictate what degree their child gets even if they’re paying for college. I think forcing someone to major in something based on what you think will be a good career doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And I do look at myself as an example. My father told me that he wanted me to major either in Business or Engineering and that anything Liberal Arts would be a waste of my time and his money. Because of that, I spent the first 2 years of my college career miserable, making bad grades, and eventually getting put on academic probation and dropping out – because I wasn’t studying what I wanted but rather what someone else thought would make me successful (according to their definition of successful).

    When I went back, I went on my terms, got a degree that everyone told me would be useless, and then pursued my dream of working as a photographer. Did I make a lot of money? No. Was I happy and did I have fabulous life experiences? Yes. I lived in Alaska for a year (half of it in a cabin with no electricity and no running water). I hitchhiked through Ireland for a summer. I have driven across the USA 5 times, East to West, and North to South on both coasts and in the middle.

    And when I was ready to settle down and have a “real” job and earn “real” money, I was able to parlay those experiences and skills into a technical job in telecommunications, earning close to 6 figures.

    Now mind you, I pursued my crazyquilt of “useless” degrees at the same time as I made sure I had some basic office and computer skills. I made sure I could type fast and accurately. I learned Excel, Office, dabbled in programming, etc. So I had something to bring to the table other than “I take good pictures.” :)

    So yeah. All that novel to explain that no, I don’t think a parent should be able to dictate a degree, no matter whose paying BUT I do think a parent should be able to say “If you’re going to pursue a degree that might be less useful in the business world, I insist that you ALSO include some basic employment skills training.” To me that’s the better balance than denying someone the opportunity to study something or pursue a career that they love.

    • I think it is great that you are using your degree. I don’t want to even count the amount of Fraternity brothers that got a degree in Communication and couldn’t be further from that world. Similarly, how many people did you graduate photography with that don’t do it now as a source of income? My guess is the percentage has to be worse than even communications.

  2. We will most likely pay for our kids’ education as well, and I will definitely be hoping that they will go for the best value. For example, paying $200,000 for a social work degree is definitely not valuable to me, they would go to state school for that.

  3. Assuming my son goes to college; I don’t care what my son majors in, even if it’s underwater basket weaving.

    The return on investment is him doing what he loves and waking up every day happy not a dollar amount.

    If I send him to college to be a money making robot then I might tell him what he can or can’t major in but that’s not the goal imho.

    • I guess one can consider that a healthy attitude if you are able to supply him with the skills to survive in this world. His job prospects with underwater basket weaving may be a bit limited vs something else. I think I’d rather see him with a roof over my son’s head than smiling living under a bridge.

      I am obviously providing an extreme example but not every 18 year makes the best decisions (ask my parents).

  4. Our kids are far away from there, but I think you lay out ground rules that don’t necessarily tie to the major. I wouldn’t say that I’m not paying for a certain degree, but I might say that we’re limiting to four years and we’re capping at a certain amount per year, and that you’re on your own for certain expenses, whether it be rent or food or whatever. It’ll be very interesting I’m sure.

    • I too am far way, my boy is only 2 and a half years old, but the response from people living it or having lived it on twitter inspired the post.

  5. When I worked for a Fortune 100 company (mid 70s) , one of my coworkers got 2 degrees to please his father. He earned a engineering degree from Stanford and a computer science degree from MIT. He hated what he was doing although he was very talented. Whether it is a degree or goals, it is personal! In other words, it has to be for the individual.

  6. My parents too didn’t chose my degree but they helped me and talked to me about my chosen college degree. I already made a mistake the first time, and I happened to waste a year and took another course the next school year.
    For now, I’m happy with my course and I’m grateful to my parents for still being on my side in the whole process. :)

  7. Ahh, I remember that conversation! I’ll be adding my own contribution in the near future, but I think I agree with where you’re going – the difference between full priced private schools and cheaper public schools makes a major difference in this situation in my mind. $50-$60,000 in today’s money on a job which will have a hard time covering that isn’t a good use of resources, especially if public schools offer the major for cheaper (assuming some similarity in quality).

    My wife has a public school Interior Design degree, and works in the field. She tells me all the time how she’s glad she graduated debt free. I wasn’t able to pull that off with my degree, but I’m glad I went STEM at a private school. It seemed to work out great for both of us.

  8. Should I have children, you can bet your bottom dollar I’d want some input on what they study, especially if I help foot the bill.

    That doesn’t mean I’ll go nuts. I wouldn’t care if my child wanted to be a nurse practitioner instead of a surgeon, but I wouldn’t want him or her to study art history, either.

    My parents didn’t contribute to my siblings’ college expenses, nor did they suggest what we studied. My mom, however, had something to say. That was that “my kids go to college, they graduate, and they make sure they get a job when they get out. I don’t care what other people do.” That was nonnegotiable. Don’t mess with mom!

    • Two fantastic statements:

      “I wouldn’t care if my child wanted to be a nurse practitioner instead of a surgeon, but I wouldn’t want him or her to study art history, either.”

      – I think that is my main point summed up in a sentence

      Don’t mess with mom!
      – NEVER

  9. LOL! When my son was college age, I considered it absolutely none of my business to tell him what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Today, my opinion has not changed.

    We give our children things because we give them things, not because we expect obedience or gratitude.

    • For me it isn’t about obedience or gratitude it is about preparing him for the future. You have lived it and maybe this post will be a huge joke one day…but I don’t think I am preparing the boy for a future by paying his way to take pictures.

      • But see, I think that’s shortsighted. I know lots and lots of people who earn a GOOD living “taking pictures”. Just because you can’t see it as a career choice, doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid one. I think it’s wrong to put YOUR blinders and your biases on your child.

  10. I hate to say it, but you’ve got to let your kids have thier pick of major. Otherwise they’ll resent you later. Just my thoughts.

  11. I will not choose or dictate what my child can or cannot study. We will have the same conversation about school costs and career choices. At the end of the day we will have a set amount we will be willing to provide. And 4 years is the max we are helping with whether it be to become a teacher, lawyer, doctor or photographer. I know my wifey does a great job at what she does but she so regrets that she listened to her parents and didn’t follow HER dream.

    • I think the 4 year max is a very generous offer. That is what my parents did…law school was all on me (and still is and likely to be for a long time lol)

  12. I think that the kid should decide but the parent should make sure it’s practical and reasonable. There are plenty of degrees out there that you can get a solid job with after graduation. I personally think it’s okay to let your child do what they want but if they want to get a degree in film making or arts or something, and they are passionate enough about it, they can pay for it themselves. If I were a parent I would never pay for something like that.

  13. My parents didn’t have a say in what I majored in and i think I will also respect the decision my kids take whether am footing the bill or not. Ofcourse I will offer advice and pointers, but at the end of the day they get to decide. I think looking at the foregoing comments its quite clear, what we want for our kids and ourselves is happiness, if, as Mark from PersonalFinancely says, “underwater basket weaving” is what makes them happy, by all chance go for it rather than resent and blame me for any unhappiness you might face later!

      • But you have determined that being a photographer doesn’t provide “any type of lifestyle” obviously without doing any research at all. I am a part time professional photographer. I know many many many many other full time professional photographers who earn good livings – better livings than I do as a Project Manager – in photography. You have some kind of irrational bias against the arts and so you assume that you know better and will dictate to your child accordingly. To me that’s what wrong about the attitude. Not that you want your child to have a “viable” degree, but that you are prejudiced against something you obviously don’t have accurate knowledge or information about and are unwilling to see or admit that.

  14. This is a tough call, but I lean towards your perspective. I think parents need to give their kids some leeway in making the decision, but if it is an expensive private university education and an art degree then No. As a commenter above said…nurse practicioner vs surgeon…different story. I enjoyed politcal science and wanted to major in that…my dad was like, I’m not paying for that! And this was at a state university. I double majored in Business and Political Science. If your child is interested in photography, he can minor in it…but the major better be something where you can get a job.

  15. It’s a lot easier to look back at your experience, than it is to decide how your current studies will dictate your future.

    I got a B.A. in English and Speech, and a M.A. in English Literature. This puzzled the Michigan farmer parents, quite frankly, but they were used to me being the brown sheep, at least. (“Will you get your nose out of that book, and go play!”) They paid for some of it, I paid for some of it.
    I was always a writer, and knew I would do that, whether I made a living at it or not. I also made sure I could type well (secretarial work), knew how to cater (my mom did it professionally), and eventually I drifted into the craft field, teaching and writing books about it. Then that led to appraising and judging quilts — and now the appraising has led to general property appraising. (I.e., anything but houses and cars.)
    How in the world would I get a degree that covered that?
    The B.A. led to the M.A. — the M.A. opened doors and got me interviews. But I had to prove I knew what I was doing.

    Husband got a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, and a M.S. in Civil Engineering. After twenty-some years working engineering’s long hours and harried schedule, he burned out — and became a school bus driver. That went on for some years, until his training reasserted itself, and he became a trainer. Now his computer experience has made him the IT guy for the schools’ transportation division — at a much higher salary, thank God, than a bus driver. (Those lean years were tough. I’m not kidding.)
    Did his degrees get him opportunities? You bet. But they also disciplined and trained him to take advantage of other opportunities.

    The one thing I would do differently for our daughters (now ages 25 and 27), would be to say that they would have to pay for at least their first year of college. Both earned enough credits in high school to cover some college credits. We had saved enough, even on bus driver pay, to cover their first year, combined with scholarships, without them having to work. (This was not the case for Husband and myself — we both had to work through college, to help pay.)
    So what did they both do with this shining opportunity? They frittered it away. Both goofed around and got failing grades. One dropped out of college altogether — the other continued to fritter for the next year or so, us helping with tuition.
    Finally we wised up and said “No more money.” Daughter #1 suddenly started taking her work more seriously, now that she had to pay. Now she’s got another year for her B.A. (in journalism), after she began in Architecture and switched to…honestly, I have no idea what the heck she was doing for several of those years. I just know, other than a $75 monthly payment on her previous loans, we weren’t funding it.
    Daughter #2 paid for her own training as a jewelry appraiser, became assistant manager at a jewelry boutique, and is now planning to go back for her B.A…in geology and business. (She was suggesting law before.)
    How do you know, when you’re young, what you will end up doing when you get older? The point is…you won’t. (Or you’ll end up doing several somethings, perhaps all at once.) So requiring a certain major, noble as it sounds, won’t do a blessed thing if the kid isn’t motivated that way, to begin with.

  16. After seeing your article over at TSD, I shared my thoughts in the comments there. However, I still want to share my thoughts here just so others can see them as well.

    In my instance, I had absolutely no guidance from my parents when it came to college. They knew nothing about financial aid (I paid cash for my tuition each semester), they knew nothing of how and which to apply to, and they knew nothing about majors. They dropped out of college and were completely supportive of me but of no help.

    So, IMO, there is an area where the parents can help without telling. I wish I’d had someone saying my BA was a waste of time before i finished it, but someone telling me what to do would have just been ignored.

    Great convo going on here.

    The Warrior
    NetWorthWarrior.com

  17. I think your mistake here is thinking that when you pay your child’s college tuition, you are paying for the degree they receive. Which is wrong. What you’re paying for is a very conducive environment for your child to become the adult they will be in life. An environment where they are encouraged to think critically, make connections and discover (and find the limits of) their potential. College isn’t about WHAT you learn, it is about learning HOW to make your own decisions and choosing the beginning path one wants in life. As a parent, you shouldn’t be choosing your child’s path in life. It’s their life, their path.

    And frankly, in this day and age, where it is easy to learn new things and change careers multiple times over a lifetime, the thought that what a young adult studies for four years in their early 20s (when they will most likely live to be 70 or 80 or more) matters in the grand scheme of things is both a) depressing, and b) incredibly limiting. Encourage your children to make their own decisions, and they’ll gain skills that will prepare them for 60 more years of living, as opposed to worry about them learning skills that will prepare them for the next decade of their lives. Give a man a fish, yada, yada, yada.

    The most important thing a person learns in College is not the subject of their study. Don’t sweat it to much.

  18. so….you clearly do not value the arts very much! pretty condescending. my 2 youngest kids just finished law school (now, there’s a waste of good money!) but their undergrad degrees were in poly sci AND several minors. aside from the impossibility of knowing who you want to be when you finally grow up, college is just not the only path to a career or to financial security. all of my kids have advanced degrees – the eldest went to a college specifically selected for his double major of cinema and environmental science. he is not involved in either of those areas for his career – he’s an attorney too. many of us followed crooked paths to our career(s) and the vast majority of people now will change careers at least once in their adult earning years. education is never wasted. never. your crystal ball is always hazy when you try to predict the future. there are plenty of out of work engineers. studying a hard science is no guarantee of future career, financial, or personal success.

    you have a two year old. by now, you should have learned the power he has. if he says NO and means it, you’re unlikely to move him. i have no problem with parents defining what they will and won’t pay for regarding college. but, trying to fit a round artist into a square engineer whole is pretty much a guarantee for disaster – on many levels.

    as a parent, i feel sure your strongest hope for your son is his future happiness and wellbeing. when you grow up (as you’re an amateur now having only one child and that one only 2) and watch him grow up, your attitude about what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ course of study may well change. you stick to your guns and don’t pay for a degree you don’t feel is worthy. that challenge may be just what it takes to bring the world its next Picasso.

  19. I guess I’m lucky (and unlucky) in that we have 3 current high school seniors and each of them has looked at what their intended majors earn in the marketplace. And they discarded a few of their ideas when they realized that there wasn’t a lot of room to grow or earn a good living. But our oldest son got his bachelor’s and masters in music and we didn’t say much about it. While he’s an amazing singer, he ended up in IT work because music just was never going to pay the bills. I guess it comes down to sustaining a passion long enough to be able to find a way to make a living at it. The world needs musicians and artists and writers. But they have to want it very badly and they have to make their peace with the fact that they may work on the periphery of their community to pay the bills while they pursue their art.

  20. Hey Evan,

    What if your kid had the option of double majoring with no added expense to you. One major for practical purposes and one for his intellectual and passionate pursuits. Would you be okay with him double majoring and having the other major be a liberal arts major?

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