Practicality, passion tug at undergrads

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When Darnell Wright, 20, declared English as his major, the Chicago State University sophomore knew it would disappoint his parents.

"My father wanted me to go into technology and get into a lucrative career," he said. "And when I told my mom, I knew it wasn't what she had hoped for me. At first I felt unsupported, but at the end of the day I had to make a decision on my own."

Facing mounting college costs, students and their parents are confronting stark realities as they select their major fields of study. Should they pursue their passions or go for the gold?

No parent wants to be nonsupportive, but with skyrocketing tuition and staggering debt loads at graduation (not to mention competitive threats in the job market such as outsourcing), it's easier to understand why parents are shunning the classics and pushing more practical majors.

"The future lies in science, engineering and math," said longtime Chicago financial industry leader Patrick Arbor, also a father of three adult children who went into varied fields. And yet an unbalanced background in those areas alone, especially if your child is talented in the arts, also is a waste, he said. The key is emphasizing breadth of skill, he said.

Chicago entrepreneur Amy Hilliard was relieved when her daughter, Angelica, took a strong interest in pre-professional programs. The 19-year-old junior at Hampton University in Virginia recently declared a public relations major, and she already has been working at her mother's company in marketing roles.

Her mother's secret? Sitting down with Angelica and writing down academic likes and dislikes - not her strengths and weaknesses. "From that list, we started talking about what kinds of careers those likes can lead to. You need to get them to identify how doing what you love can pay the bills."

Setting an example didn't hurt, either. Five years ago, Hilliard left a successful career with large consumer-products companies and advertising agencies to start her own company, selling her Southern-style homemade pound cakes. Today, her cakes are sold through mass retailers, including local grocers.

"Kids not only have to figure out their calling, but also whether they are going to be able to pay off their loans. There's no question that the economic cost of college is in many cases distorting kids' selection of majors, " said Jon Gallo, a Los Angeles attorney and co-author of The Financially Intelligent Parent: 8 Steps to Raising Successful, Generous, Responsible Children.

The problem with this is that it can lead to successful but depressed lawyers and investment bankers, Gallo said.

At the same time, pursuing a passion in a field that doesn't correspond to an immediate career path can be fraught with economic peril.

Wright, the Chicago State English major, admits he is "very frightened" about landing a job after college. He figures he will have to work as a teacher, which he doesn't want to do, while he tries to make it as a fiction writer.

"It absolutely scares me when people ask me what I'm going to do with my degree," he said. "Life in the arts is never easy, and I know that. But I also know this is my passion."

Janet Kidd Stewart writes for Tribune Media Services.

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