A new analysis from a sociologist at Cornell found that parents’ income correlates with what their children will study in college. The more parents earn, the more likely their children will choose less “useful” majors such as history, English and performing arts. Those from lower-income families tend to lean toward computer science, math and physics.

The idea is that lower-income students make decisions about what to study out of necessity, while wealthier kids can afford other routes.

As Joe Pinsker put it for the Atlantic, “Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school.”

It makes sense that students from wealthier families would feel more at ease, choosing a course of study they enjoy, since their family is more likely to support them if they become under- or unemployed, said Kim Weeden, who analyzed the National Center for Education Statistics data.

However, people shouldn’t draw firm conclusions from the correlation, said Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology at New York University, since income is a limited indicator.

“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,” Conley told the Atlantic. “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.”

How Does Choice of College Major Correlate With Parents’ Household Income?

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...