Paycheck or passion?

Lowellites are torn between going to college for a well-paying job or studying what they’re interested in.

Junior Nikolas Tom leaves a meeting with his godfather feeling crushed. He just promised to take the steps to get a marketing degree at a four-year university, abandoning any dreams he had of pursuing an English major. He doesn’t know which is the right choice: follow his dreams and disappoint his family, or pursue a more financially practical field of study and disappoint himself?

This is a question that plagues many Lowellites. 

As the cost of living grows, many students feel the urgency to obtain a college degree that will help them attain economic stability. This pressure often overrides genuine interest when choosing an area of study. Students wonder whether they should pursue what they love, or choose a major that will help them make money.

College education, as well as the type of degree obtained, correlates with a significant difference in earnings. According to the US Department of Education, the median earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree were 63 percent higher than the earnings of those who completed high school in 2020. And as expected from a proclaimed college preparatory school, 96 percent of surveyed Lowellites planned to attend college. But not all majors are created equal. A disparity in income exists between college majors and the careers that result from them. Jobs in the STEM field have a mean salary of $100,900 annually, whereas jobs in arts and design average $65,180 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2022 report.

The median earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree were 63 percent higher than the earnings of those who completed high school in 2020.

Money is a common worry for prospective students. According to the survey conducted by The Lowell of 270 students, 69 percent of respondents listed “money” as a motivation for pursuing their chosen field of study. Some students do not feel like there is value in majoring in something that does not have an obvious financial upside. “I think the time and energy it takes to get [a degree] isn’t worth it if it doesn’t help me get a better job,” one survey respondent said. In the words of another respondent, “You need the moolah to survive!” Skyla Frauenheim, a senior that is committed to studying art, is concerned about the financial implications of not pursuing something more profitable, such as STEM, in college. “There’s always the anxiety like I should probably get a minor in something that could earn me money,” Frauenheim said. “And that’s what my parents have said too.”

Joey he

Even students going into a STEM major may feel the pressure to choose a lucrative career over one that they would prefer, especially for those who plan on remaining in the Bay Area. Sophomore Jessica Tam has a passion for marine biology, but she plans to major in biotechnology because she expects it will earn her more money. She said part of her worry stems from the high cost of living in San Francisco. I 100 percent would have chosen marine biology over anything else,” Tam said. “But I’m planning to stay in the Bay Area and I do have to plan. How am I going to support myself?” She also wants a secure job so she can concentrate on improving people’s lives. How am I gonna be able to help other people and do my job knowing that I constantly have to worry about money? I don’t want that stress,” Tam said. “So I kind of had to make this decision.” A number of Lowell students are in a similar situation to Tam. According to the survey, 41 percent of students said that they would choose a different major if money was not an option.

For students such as Tom, family pressure to earn a lot of money is the major deciding factor. Tom’s mother, an immigrant from Taiwan, didn’t have the opportunity to choose the job of her dreams. Because of her circumstances, she had no other choice but to get the highest-paying job she could find to raise a family. “I feel like she’s locked me in the same survival mindset,” Tom said. He believes that she would disapprove of him becoming a writer or artist because she’s still focused on making enough money to survive. “I feel pressured by what it means to do what I would want to do in the context of my family and my race.”

How am I gonna be able to help other people and do my job knowing that I constantly have to worry about money? I don’t want that stress.

Tom’s godfather, who works as a college counselor, has also pushed him to discard any ideas of studying English in college. He thinks Tom should study marketing so he can get a well-paying job after college. Although Tom promised his godfather he would pursue marketing, he still feels conflicted. “Choosing what I wanna do for college, while it is my own decision at the end of the day, sometimes I feel like I’m just being pulled between multiple things at once,” Tom said. Despite his genuine interest in English and writing, the pressure of financial security has pushed Tom to move towards a realistic career. “I love art so much and I would love to never stop making it because it’s the one thing I’m really truly good at, but I have to choose somehow,” Tom said. “I feel like I’m starting to accept more and more that I have to lean into practicality because it’s what’s gonna help me right now.” 

Ava Rosoff

Meanwhile, for those who choose to follow their passions, the stress of needing to support their family weighs on their conscience. Frauenheim, who wants to study visual art, is aware that it may be harder to support their family with a job as an artist. “My parents do not have a big retirement fund,” Frauenheim said. “So they’re like, ‘You guys need to make at least enough money to support us a little bit.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not happening from me.’ So now I’m just putting that pressure on my brother.”

Despite the pressures on some Lowellites to study in profitable fields, others are set on following their passions, regardless of the financial sacrifice. For senior Ethan Holm, a film and photography major, there’s no question when it comes to money and family pressure. His filmmaking fervor far outweighs any potential monetary concerns. To me, it is all because of the love of the [cinematography] craft,” Holm said. It’s 100 percent based on that. I don’t really care about the money at all.” He said that his family was happy that he was interested in a specific field in any capacity, and that film is something he is deeply passionate about. 

Holm believes that it is necessary for people to seek a career they are truly interested in, because the benefit of making money won’t matter if they are miserable. “I think if people feel really strongly about computer science or whatever, that’s fine for them and that’s going to work. But I know there are a lot of people who are doing it because they just feel like they have to or they feel like it’s safe,” Holm said. “They’re gonna wake up in 40 years and be like, ‘What was the point of all of this?’” Students that have given up on what they want to do are aware of this. “I don’t want to go through adulthood completely miserable,” Tom said. “Because when you make choices like that and you regret it, you can’t reverse it.”

Joey He

Despite the importance of supporting oneself and one’s family, some students feel that studying the humanities, such as becoming a visual arts major, has unique educational value. One survey respondent said, “Humanities majors teach you more about being a person. People who take humanities classes and major in them may not be as wealthy as those who majored in STEM, went to medical or law school, but they are far more interesting and worthwhile people.” Holm sees this path as valuable in terms of personal satisfaction. “Everyone, in my opinion, needs some sort of creative outlet because I think when people are really dissatisfied with their job or whatever else, it’s because they feel like they can’t really think at all,” Holm said. “And a lot of people could avoid that by just having an outlet that they can feel creative and stimulated in.”

Choosing what I wanna do for college, while it is my own decision at the end of the day, sometimes I feel like I’m just being pulled between multiple things at once.

Worthwhile or not, the fact remains that STEM and law degrees tend to have a higher return on investment. But this wouldn’t matter as much if college were less expensive. Tam, Tom, and Frauenheim all mentioned worries about the price of college. The average student who takes out federal loans owes $37,574 after completing college, which can haunt them for decades. Twenty years after entering school, half of borrowers still owe $20,000, according to the Education Data Initiative. This results from a lack of state spending on higher education combined with a rising cost of living. This threat of debt looms over students’ decisions, as they have to make enough money to offset that debt after college. However, college doesn’t have to be such an enormous financial commitment. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, there are several ways to make college more affordable, including better information about financial aid and transfer pathways, and expanding aid to cover costs outside tuition, such as housing and materials. If college were more affordable, families would not see college costs as such a drastic burden, and students like Tam and Tom would have more choice of what to study.

Joey He

Deciding on a college major weighs heavily on Lowellites. For many of them, the conflicting demands of gaining financial security and achieving personal satisfaction make the burden particularly hard to bear. Not everyone feels free to study what interests them, and end up choosing a paycheck over their passion. Though Tom is trying to be optimistic about the more financially prudent path he has chosen, he remains conflicted about giving up on his desire to pursue an English degree. “It is kind of depressing to think about how I might have to completely throw it away for college,” Tom said.