How Statistical Analysis Can Ruin Your Life

I remember having conversations with college freshmen and college aspirants while I was teaching and tutoring in Ohio. Inevitably, the conversation would begin with what their major was. Now, I’m not one to be content with knowing simply what a person has decided to dedicate four years of their life to studying. So my first question to these college aspirants and freshmen was always something to the effect of, “Why did you choose that major?”

The answers were, about nine times out of ten, discouraging to listen to. Almost all of the students I talked to would mention something about being good at the major in some vague way (for instance, the finance major mentioning he or she’s “good with numbers”), and then noting that there were jobs to be had in the field. I never pressed them much further than that, but I kind of wish I had. “Says who?”

I know the answer to that question. There are “jobs in the field” according to the magazines and websites that they read. It’s “a growing industry” (or “a timeless profession” in the case of those pursuing medicine). They’ve looked into the numbers, in other words, and found that 75% of people with degree X from institution Y have a job within 6 months of graduation. So they commit to a major based on the statistical likelihood of employment after graduation. This is a process of thinking that makes parents proud, and I can’t figure out why, because it most often results in misery when the student pushes through their education without passion, and is awarded with a job that aligns poorly with their true desires.

And that assumes that they are in that 75% that actually get a job. What of the other 25%? Well, now they look up after four years and realize that they didn’t even perform well enough to crack the top 75% in their field. That doesn’t just make them mediocre at their chosen skillset. That makes them poor at them. How would you like to spend four years studying something to be told you aren’t very good at it? It’s crushing, and it would have been better for those 25% had they gone with something they actually cared about.

Because, seriously, if you care about something and you study it for four years, you’re going to crack the top 75%. Probably the top 50%, if not higher. Passion counts, but it doesn’t make it into these statistical analyses. As a result, I have doubts that the statistics matter much. Maybe you need a trade to survive on while you make your passionate dreams a reality, but that’s far different than trying to co-opt a dream that isn’t yours.

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