Coffie Fields is searching for the job of her dreams.
In just two months, the Boston University student will graduate with a bachelor's degree in sociology. Time is short and she wonders if her major will land her a job right away.
"With any liberal arts degree, the skills you have are not as definable as others," she says as she sifts through possibilities in the career library. "It's kind of frustrating to know that I'm not guaranteed any sort of position as I would be if I were a business or computer major."
One table away, Brian Jensen, a junior majoring in business finance, is confident his major and a good grade-point average will snare him a high-paying job next year.
Ms. Fields and Mr. Jensen may face dramatically different job prospects. But you'd never know it from the number of students signing up for sociology and business, two of the hottest majors on campus.
With four years of college often topping $100,000, it might seem logical for students to target majors that will likely pave the way to a high-paying job. Many, like Jensen, are moving in just that direction. But a surprising number of students are shunning business and high-tech majors with potentially high payoffs for the liberal arts and social sciences.
"Students are following their own desires," says L. Patrick Scheetz, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI) at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "They are not necessarily responding to job-market trends in their choices of academic major."
How important is the choice?
Instead, they may be hanging onto a more traditional notion of college study. A major is important, and a specialized one, in business or a foreign language, can have a powerful influence over future direction. But carrying through on a major - completing the course work and obtaining a specialized body of knowledge - may be just as important as the topic matter, some argue.
Employers currently list among their top picks students who major in accounting, management science, chemical engineering, and computer science. Chemical and electrical engineering command the best starting salaries: $40,000-plus.
Nevertheless, after falling for a decade, the number of degrees in the humanities and social and behavioral sciences began growing in the mid-1980s, according to US Department of Education data.
Social-science graduates are expected to rank second this spring behind business - with education third, psychology fifth, and English seventh.
To Arthur Levine, that comes as no surprise. "I've never run into a group that more wants to believe in the American dream or that the individual can make difference," says the president of Columbia Teachers College in New York.
"Undergraduates have heroes, and students are more socially active than at any time since the 1960s," Professor Levine writes in his new book, "When Hope and Fear Collide: a Portrait of Today's College Student."
Ideals and pragmatism
As a result, students are trying to balance idealism and practicality. That desire is showing up in one of the fastest-growing majors: human services.
Jennifer Darton, for example, started out at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh with her eye on a degree in nursing. But three years later she shifted to human services because she was "really more interested in just helping people."
Five years ago, no college in the country was listed as offering a human-services major, while today 188 colleges in 40 states do, according to the College Board's "1998 Index of Majors and Graduate Degrees."
That index defines the major as offering classes "that prepare individuals to help those in need of assistance through support, advocacy, mediation, or care.
"Students learn how to interview clients, collect information, implement treatment plans, consult with other workers and agencies, solve problems, and advocate for clients."
"It is very applied and ... intuitively appealing to freshmen who want to change the world," says Alan Mathios, director of undergraduate studies for policy analysis and management at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Cornell grads in human services and policy analysis have gone on to the Federal Reserve Board, law school, and many service organizations, he says.
Ms. Darton did three internships before graduating in 1995. Today, she is executive director of the Omro Area Community Center, which feeds and administers a variety of programs that assist seniors, teens, and newborns in the tiny community just west of Oshkosh.
The influence of internships
Such internships can influence a student's choice of major, as well as job prospects after graduation.
Ms. Fields, for example, arrived at Boston University planning to be a communications major and work for a big company. That idea lasted a month. Then there was psychology. Her sophomore year, however, she discovered sociology and knew she would one day work for "racial reconciliation" - and get paid for it.
She is confident she picked the best major, despite the heavy competition for jobs. Her efforts to get out of the classroom and test her book knowledge convinced her of that.
Along with fellow students, Fields has worked with troubled youths in low-income areas of Boston. She knows her salary will likely never reach what she might have made as a communications major. But she will be happy, she says.
Still, others suggest college's role as a haven for carefree exploration of career options may be slipping due to financial pressures and fears. "Am I going to be able to repay my loans?" is the top question troubling most students, author Levine says.
That may be seen in lower numbers of "undecided" majors at some colleges, some suggest. Yet at the University of California at Davis, undecided "exploratory" majors have risen to nearly 18 percent of the student body, compared with 10 percent a decade ago.
"Money is important," says Yvonne Marsh, an assistant vice chancellor at the University of California at Davis. But "it's not just dollar figures for students. They want to work in areas where their home communities are underserved."
She notes a drop in pre-law majors and a rise in education majors. The latter, however, is based in part on the knowledge that a job will be waiting. Two years ago, California mandated a decrease in class size, boosting demand for teachers.
To Deni Dayan, that's good news. The senior at UC Davis hopes to "serve people" as a school psychologist. Her fluent Spanish makes her job outlook good in heavily Hispanic California. The psychology major, who plans to go to graduate school, expects to command a starting salary of $50,000 once she gets her PhD.
"I came to college with a completely open mind," she says. "I just found I was more interested in the human mind than international relations. I've always wanted to be in the helping profession. I'm pretty sure that's what will make me happy."
The T-Shirt Test
Dana Sparks, owner of Sparx Enterprises of Newport, Beach, Calif., sells "generic majors" T-shirts to undergraduates over the Internet - offering 85 styles from accounting to zoology. Each has a pictogram on it. Zoology has a zebra, accounting has a calculator, etc.
His biggest seller is the "undecided" major with a big question mark in the middle. Not too far behind, though, are education, psychology, and criminal justice. Of course, if some majors are really hot, others are really not.
Perhaps undergraduate students are just not far-sighted enough, but astronomy is pretty far down on the list, Mr. Sparks says. And as for his linguistics T-shirt, which brings up the rear, he says: "There just hasn't been a lot of demand for that one."