Graduation time is nearly here, which means that many high school seniors will hear two questions again and again: “Where are you going to college?” and “What are you going to study?”

Some students may say that they’re thinking about becoming a petroleum engineer, a software developer or a computer programmer. All those careers fall under the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) umbrella. When those students earn their degrees, they’ll have little trouble finding well-paying work with long-term career potential.

A 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics report predicts that STEM jobs will grow 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, a pace exceeding the 11 percent growth rate of other occupations. If your teen has her sights set on becoming an information security analyst, recruiters will be lining up: Demand for workers who can fill that role is projected to grow by 37 percent by 2022.

But perhaps your teen isn’t interested in STEM jobs. He might want to major in dance. Or English literature. Or philosophy. If you’re footing the hefty bill for four years of college, you may feel entitled—and even compelled—to insist that your teen choose a more practical area of study.

You might, reasonably enough, ask: “How are you going to support yourself with a degree in fine arts?” or “How are you going to pay back your student loans if you are injured and can no longer photograph/paint/dance like you’re doing now?”

That’s a valid concern given that students take on significant debt to pay for college. A recent Sallie Mae study found that students expect to borrow money to cover 19 percent of the cost of their education, and 84 percent of those with loans will be responsible for paying them off.

This is a massive burden, especially when you consider that few teens, if any, have the life experience and money-management expertise to evaluate whether they’re making wise decisions about their future.

I suggest that instead of dictating a course of study and focusing solely on post-college earning potential, you open a dialogue with your high school student. Before you tell her in no uncertain terms that she cannot major in vocal performance, ask her how she anticipates transforming her education and interests into a viable career. Encourage her to think broadly, sample classes in a variety of disciplines and see where they lead her.

My oldest child started college determined to study photography. My husband and I bit our tongues and suggested she not limit herself to a single field. Her passion for holistic health and well-being led her to enroll in – and enjoy – classes in biology. That’s now her major, and she’s mentioned medical school, an option she hadn’t considered a year ago.

One of the biggest benefits of higher education is the interactions your student will have with classmates, professors and ideas. Trust that he’ll grow during his years at school and will have the ability to make a truly educated decision about a career path and his post-college life.


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