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.
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.
One thing is clear, however: A college degree has never been more valuable. In the 1970s, college graduates could expect to earn 15 to 17 percent more than a high school graduate, says Harrington. By 2000, students with a bachelor's degree were earning 66 percent more than high school grads.
Yet at the same time, the cost of college tuition is now so high that investing in college today carries much more risk than in the past, says Harrington.
For Annie Vogel, the cost of her education was a key consideration in selecting a major. The sophomore started as a computer-science major at the University of Denver, but was thrilled when she discovered that a video-game development major was in the works. According to animationarena.com, entry-level programmers start at $55,000 a year. At the high end, lead program developers can earn between $150,000 and $250,000.
"I'm only 19 years old," says Ms. Vogel, who grew up on a steady diet of Nintendo. "I'm spending so much money on school. It's pointless not to have a direction."
For Marvin Phillips, a senior at New York's Morrisville State College, a specialized major appealed as a means of giving himself a "jump-start" in the job market.
Mr. Phillips originally aimed at a bachelor's degree in information technology, but then added an associate degree in gaming/casino management.
In his classes, Philips learns about facial-recognition software and hospitality technology, software that tracks customers' habits. Other courses in the program include management, tourism planning, sales, marketing, and customer service. Phillips is acutely aware that his studies are a bit of a novelty.
"A lot of people don't know [casinos are] a growing field," says Phillips, who plans to work in one in his hometown of Hogansburg, N.Y., after graduating. When he tells people what he's majoring in, "they're basically shocked."
Peter LaMacchia, director of the six-year-old casino studies program, says enrollment in the program grew by 60 percent this year. "It looks like I'm going to have to turn students away," he says.
Most of these specialized college majors are driven by the economy, but several are also inspired by real-world events. When the financial worlds of Enron, Global Crossing, and WorldCom came crashing down, schools such as the University of West Virginia started offering a three-week certificate course in forensic accounting, a study of the intersection between accounting and the law.
And after 9/11, colleges and universities introduced certificate and degree programs in homeland security, counterterrorism, and disaster management. According to The Wall Street Journal, the Department of Homeland Security employs about 180,000 workers. Translation and border-patrol security are the fastest growing fields.
"Some of the students want to be better educated or more well informed about the big picture of homeland security; others are hoping that the certificate will make them more marketable," says Phil Schertzing, a professor at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice. The school has created a three-course online certificate program.
"Before Sept. 11, the vast majority of Americans had never referred to America as the homeland. What does that mean? The terms are still being defined," says Professor Schertzing.
Of course, students can specialize all they want, but employers pretty much all want the same thing - a whole set of behavioral traits, says Harrington. Perhaps the most valuable part of a specialized major could turn out to be any actual workplace experience it might include.
"You can be smart and you can have these occupational proficiencies, but you have to know how to work at the workplace," he says. "Early work experience really helps kids figure that out."