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Specialty majors are the rage on some campuses

By Lisa Leigh ConnorsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2004

At the start of her freshman year in college, Nici Smith declared her major in financial planning. But when an e-mail about a new major in sports sales popped up on her computer screen during sophomore year, she started to rethink her career track.

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The junior at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is now learning how to sell professionally for her new major in sports, sponsorships, and sales. She will intern with a professional sports team during her junior and senior years and take consumer surveys at ballparks and stadiums to earn her degree.

"You're not really learning history, you're learning about real events happening today and applying it to something you have an interest in," says Ms. Smith. "I just find it interesting that I can apply my degree at Baylor to something exciting like the sports industry."

With jobs going overseas and the economy stuck in neutral, more students are gravitating toward a cluster of highly specialized new majors, hoping these will give them an edge in a competitive job market. Popular choices include sports sales, video-game development, casino studies, and homeland security.

Driving interest in many of these fields is the perception that they will prove lucrative. A person selling sponsorships to professional sports teams can expect a starting salary in the six- figure range, says Kirk Wakefield, chair of the marketing department at Baylor.

When it comes to earning power, choosing a major might matter more than where you go to school, according to research by three professors at Northeastern University in Boston.

A key finding included in their book "The College Majors Handbook": "Graduates employed in fields closely related to their major generally earn much higher annual salaries than graduates employed in jobs that are unrelated to their major."

"Specific knowledge has big payoffs, says Paul Harrington, one of the book's authors. "Kids who have this idea of where they're headed, they're generally going to find themselves substantially more advantaged."

Yet some of these majors are so new, the ink is barely dry on the brochures; websites have been up and running for only a few weeks. In the case of homeland security studies, there is not even an accepted textbook available.

Students and colleges alike, however, are attracted to the idea that such studies will ease entry into fields otherwise difficult to penetrate. "The reason why you see more segmented approaches is because you can find a competitive niche to place your students," says Dr. Wakefield. "Sports marketing is like trying to get into Hollywood. When we started this program, we wanted something where students wouldn't have to compete as generalists."

However, some question whether 18- and 19-year-olds are ready to commit to such targeted career paths. Some people argue that they might be too young to specialize, and that such a narrow educational scope prevents them from exploring diverse fields at their own pace.

"Society is putting a lot of pressure on a lot of kids to decide what they want to do early on in life," says Scott Leutenegger, associate professor of computer science at the University of Denver.

But his school's computer-science program needed a lift, says Professor Leutenegger, who has seen a 50 percent drop in enrollment over the past four years. Hoping to attract students in search of a more specific focus, Leutenegger and his colleagues launched a new major in video-game development this fall.

Such specialization makes computer science more attractive and fun, says Leutenegger, and it gets students in the door. "Five years from now when the economy rebounds, we're going to be in trouble because we won't have enough computer scientists," he predicts. The first two years of the video-game program includes traditional computer-science curriculum.