Smart College Majors Are Picked By Smart Students: Ranking Intelligence Is A Matter Of Degree

College Diplomas Determine Smarts
Your intelligence has a lot to do with what type of college degree you pursue. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

You’re a senior in high school. You’ve just survived puberty, the SATs, prom, and now you have to decide what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, life is not a coin toss. If you’re lucky enough to have a choice between different colleges, that's difficult enough to decide. But choosing your major and setting your eyes on a prize four years from now is a different kind of investment. It turns out there are decades of research proving the degree you choose is most likely influenced by your intelligence.

Duke University researcher Jonathan Wai, compiled data from five independent measures of American students’ academic abilities. Between 1946 and 2014, he found an invariably predictable order in how each college major was ranked from highest aptitude to lowest. Are you an education major or did you study chemistry?

The analysis shows five completely independent breakdowns comparing future, current, or past majors and their intelligence. Of course, the majors were evaluated based on their average scores and not on individual merit. What he found was that whether it was 50 years ago or five, the results replicated again and again, leading Wai to believe a particular major reflective of acumen. There was an undeniably distinct and consistent pattern in nearly 70 years of research.

Years of Proof: Majors Reflect Intelligence

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1946, researchers began collecting standardized test scores from the Army General Classification Test, which included 10,000 college graduates from 40 universities. The test was designed to assess general learning ability in the military, and the results were analyzed and published. Students with the highest scores had a degree in the physical sciences, engineering, humanities, biological sciences, and the lower scores held social sciences, business and commerce, agriculture, and education degrees, respectively.

Between 1951 and 1967, researchers collected mathematics and verbal ability scores from 38,420 college seniors. The general test ran through 150 questions, and found those studying physical sciences, engineering, humanities, and biological sciences were the smartest of the group, while social sciences, business and commerce, agriculture, and education were the low scorers. The results were nearly identical to the first set of results, save but a few incremental numbers. However, the order was exactly the same.

Let’s look at what’s going on in high school students’ brains of the early 1970s graduate class. Before they entered into college, researchers studied 400,000 students’ math, verbal, and spatial aptitudes. Eleven years later researchers checked up on them to see how far they went in their education and career attainment. The engineering, physical science, mathematics or computer science, and biological sciences had attained most of the bachelors, masters, and PhDs in the group, while humanities, social sciences, arts, business, and education majors had the least.

Wai chose to fast forward and examine a wealth of data from Graduate Record Examination (the dreaded GRE, basically the SATs on steroids) between 2002 and 2005. The 1.2 million student scores they analyzed were from students who were either just graduating college or finished and were applying to graduate schools. This was arguably the smarter set of students who were trying to achieve a higher level of education. But the system stayed true to its pattern, and those who majored in engineering, physical science, mathematics or computer science, and biological science had scored the highest. Meanwhile the humanities, arts, social science, business, and education majors fell in the lowest groups.

The final study analyzed the infamous Scholastic Assessment Test, better known as the SAT. Researchers took the average math and verbal aptitude scores of 1.6 million high school seniors who indicated plans for college in 2014. Those who planned on studying mathematics or statistics, physical sciences, social sciences, engineering biological or biomedical sciences, computer or information sciences, and liberal arts or humanities, scored the highest. Students who wanted to major in history, business, communication or journalism, visual or performing arts, psychology, health professions, education, and agriculture scored the lowest on the SAT.

From science and technology to engineering and mathematics, STEM fields not only capture the smartest students but also produce the money makers of America. These are the people who go the furthest with their education, careers, and exercise their brains’ capacities past other fields. This does not account for each individual student, but Hai concludes it worthy to understand the way our intelligence and interests guide us.

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