The myth of lucrative college majors

There’s a strong tendency today to value things in merely measurable terms: prices, costs and paychecks. Consider the attention surrounding a Georgetown University economist’s report ranking the most and least lucrative college majors.

If college is simply about maximizing future income, then I suppose it makes good sense to take stock of what careers are likely to pay after graduation when deciding on a major. Yet Christians should keep in mind that the calculus of the kingdom of God is distinct from that of the kingdom of this world. While information like this is important, it needs to be contextualized lest it become all-determining. The size of a paycheck is not the only factor worth considering when deciding what subjects to study and, indeed, whether to continue formal study at all after high school.

To understand why this is the case, it’s important to explore what paychecks are and what they are not. A paycheck is not a statement about your inherent value as a person. Each one of us, whether we pursue waged work or not, whether we work outside the home or not, whether we are in plenty or in want, are valuable to God. In this regard, whether you are paid the minimum wage of a line cook or have the golden parachute of a CEO makes no difference: your work matters to God. The simple identification of a quantity of money with relative importance in the kingdom was ruled out when Christ singled out the sacrifice of the widow, who “out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

The size of your paycheck does communicate something, however. It represents the value that your work has in the marketplace, a value set, depending on the system, either by political decree or voluntary cooperation. In the latter case we can move with some reliability from the compensation a person receives to judgments about that person’s fulfillment of some kind of demand. When boxer Floyd Mayweather gets a guaranteed payout of $41.5 million to fight in a pay-per-view event, it tells us something about the willingness of large numbers of people to pay $69.95 to see him fight on television or upwards of $2,000 to see the fight live.

As the Reformed thinker Lester DeKoster has observed, work is essentially “the gift of the self to the service of others - in exchange for the paycheck.” The paycheck is a sign of the value placed on our work in the marketplace corresponding to our ability to then engage the service of others. This arrangement is what DeKoster calls “civilization,” the exchange of goods and services made possible by our work. But the value placed on our labor in the marketplace does not necessarily correspond to any objective measure of morality. The size of Mayweather’s payday says nothing about the moral status of boxing. Just because someone is willing to compensate you, even handsomely, to do something does not mean that it is good or right for you to engage in that work. In fact, some of the most lucrative jobs are those which are inherently immoral (and very often illegal). As the economist Paul Heyne concluded about the limits of economics, “The market is a faithful servant in America today, providing more and more of the good things that we want. That is no reason to cripple it. It is reason, however, to think more carefully about what we want.”

So the paycheck you receive tells you something about the virtues and vices of the civilization in which you live. Therefore Christians need to be careful not to confuse the values of the civilizations of this world with those of the kingdom of God. If you seek ultimate meaning in your paycheck, you will be doomed to disappointment. As Jesus warned, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Christians must use their prudential judgments and consciences, guided by the witness of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, to judge the ways in which the divine and human economies converge and diverge.

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