What Seafood Towers Tell Us About College Majors

Last week I was invited to a dinner at a fancy seaside restaurant. Although renowned for its gigantic Wagyu steaks, fine wines, and celebrity sightings, I’ve always thought of it as the place with the $14 baked potato. Most of all, this restaurant is known for its seafood towers. If you’ve never seen a seafood tower, imagine high-tea-like tiered plates of ice covered with shrimp, clams, oysters, mussels, lobster, and crab. I don’t get the appeal. To my mind, taking these creatures out of the deep and stacking them in a vertical configuration simply adds insult to injury. But our host aimed to impress and ordered two towers for the table. As the server ticked through the seafood options, the host kept saying yes, which struck me as ridiculous. So I played along, asking if the restaurant could make the towers at least four tiers: tall verging on structurally unsound.

The towers made the desired impression – arriving theatrically with a trail of dry ice smoke. Then, in the category of you can't make this stuff up, as I was pondering the ontology of seafood towers, I received a call from Leo, my 18-year-old. Leo had applied for summer jobs at local restaurants, including this one. He was excited to interview the week before at the home of the $14 baked potato and the dinner interruption was to inform me he’d just been offered a job as a busboy!

This week Leo began busboy training, or as the restaurant calls it, server assistant training. I snuck a peek at the seafood tower section of his manual and learned three things. First, as servers present the tower, they’re supposed to use flashlights so each item (species?) gets a spotlight moment. In moving the flashlight up the tower, they should be as obsequious as possible (e.g., “as you requested” or “per your order”) while also introducing tower features such as lemon wrap, sauces, and shell buckets. Second, as the tower is consumed, servers should use tongs to move items down a tier or two and remove upper levels, presumably to provide diners with a sense of progress. Third, servers are instructed in no uncertain terms to AVOID OVER SELLING, which judging from our teeming towers and the lobster I ended up bringing home, our server did not scrupulously adhere to.

After Leo’s seafood-tower-summer, he will be heading to college. As he doesn’t know what he wants to major in, after his high school graduation in two weeks, I’ll be sharing a few things I learned from Strada’s recent Talent Disrupted report. Strada found that “post-graduation employment in a college-level job is more closely tied to what students study than where they study. Degree fields account for more of the variation in college graduates’ employment outcomes than institutional characteristics.” And even if graduates fail to launch immediately, majors predict who’s likely to “escape” or launch eventually. A recent analysis by the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP) came to the same conclusion: “choice of major explains more of the variation in ROI [return-on-investment] than choice of college.” Strikingly, Strada and FREOPP had a similar sequence of majors, from highest return to lowest.

Seafood towers are not only a good way to run up a restaurant bill (although no one should begrudge restaurants the right to charge per shrimp – see e.g., Red Lobster’s ill-advised all-you-can-eat shrimp promotion leading to closures and now bankruptcy), they’re also helpful for explaining the Strada and FREOPP results. Not just because majors are expensive. And not just because you’ll want a hot towel when you’re done. But because of tiers: if it doesn’t have at least two tiers, restaurants shouldn’t be selling it as a seafood tower. Likewise, if majors don’t have two tiers, colleges shouldn’t be offering them.


Before we dive deep on majors (and seafood), a few caveats. First, there are always exceptions. As Lumina Foundation’s Jamie Merisotis notes, there are plenty of examples of English majors who end up doing well in a foreign language like finance. Second, majors may reflect less than one-third of all credits. So it’s not as though students aren’t learning anything else. But until companies actually figure out how to do skills-based hiring – and it may be some time – majors matter, a lot. And while there are good arguments for viewing college more holistically, try telling that to an indebted, underemployed graduate.

Students need two things from majors. The first is a set of capabilities most of us would equate with being educated. I’ve called them cognitive skills, but the nonprofit America Succeeds has a better name: durable skills. America Succeeds’ Durable Skills Framework sets out ten big buckets of skills with specific applications:

I love this list. At the risk of having too many, I’ll add two more to my bucket list:

Durable skills is the first tier in the major tower. The second tier is job readiness: preparing students for work post-college. Strada and FREOPP’s top-performing majors do both, while the worst do neither.

Here’s a seafood-tower-inspired visualization:

Tier 1 + Tier 2: True Towers
Majors like computer science, engineering, pharmacy, and nursing deliver both durable skills and job readiness. 23 of the 25 highest value programs are in these fields. And because the market values these skillsets so highly, colleges have a hard time competing for faculty, resulting in supply constraints; 75% of the top 25 public universities limit access to these majors. (Another reason: faculty salary demands aside, lab- and clinical-intensive programs cost more to deliver than lectures and seminars.) At some schools, these programs are so challenging that students may select less rigorous courses for remaining credits, which could lessen the long-term educational benefit. Nonetheless, these two-tiered programs are towers and should be savored, perhaps with cocktail sauce.

Tier 2 Only: Job Readiness
As they teach the job, what you see in these majors is what you get. Accounting and finance are the best examples. Accounting in the classroom isn’t so different from accounting in the enterprise. The great hope is that Tier 2 students take advantage of the other half to two-thirds of their courses to gain more durable skills. Judging by the salaries of accounting and finance grads, most do so. But without a base of durable skills, their economic future is more precarious. Watch out for falling crab (or crabby grads).

Tier 1 Only: Durable Skills
Thanks to faculty allergies to job readiness (i.e., jobs outside working at a college or university), most majors fall into this category: liberal arts, humanities, and many social sciences. On one hand, graduates are getting the essential first tier. On the other, this is the main driver of the depressing 52% underemployment rate reported in Talent Disrupted. But one caveat: many Tier 1 grads don’t need job readiness because they’re contemplating careers that require professional degrees, although given the eye-watering combined expense, that seems more like a bug than a feature.

Bottom Feeders
Then there are majors that don’t provide either tier. These are ostensibly pre-professional majors like communications, real estate, public safety and security, recreation and wellness studies. They neither provide much in the way of durable skills nor teach what companies are looking for; few students are qualified for a good job after completing one of these degrees. Furthermore, is anyone really passionate about these majors at the age of 18 (or 25)? Poor career outcomes may be exacerbated by self-selection: unmotivated students somehow landing in these programs. Notably, selective colleges tend not to offer them. The elephant in this category is business majors like management, sales, marketing, and HR. Both Strada and FREOPP identify a schism in business between quantitative majors like finance and non-math-intensive majors. Despite their career preparation pretensions, the latter aren’t pre-professional, they’re pseudo-professional. And colleges offering them really don’t know what the jobs entail, particularly for those coming in on the ocean floor.


A few additional notes on the seafood tower framework for college majors:

Students seem to get it. According to National Student Clearinghouse, the fastest growing academic programs have both tiers. They know that’s the only way they’ll be able to afford a seafood tower.

I recognize that majors that are Tier 1, Tier 2, or Bottom Feeders have been offered for generations. But that’s no defense; grandfathering programs only makes sense if grandfather conditions still apply. In every other sector of the economy, products are constantly updated or retired. In higher education, many programs are simply tired. Colleges need product innovation that runs faster than tartar sauce.

The decision on Bottom Feeders should be easy. For majors suspected of not having either tier, the burden should be on departments to prove their programs of study are competitive with other majors on durable skills or job readiness, if not both. If presidents, provosts, and boards of trustees don’t get sufficient proof, they should claw back funding from these programs and departments.

If colleges fail to do this, they’re intentionally prioritizing the interests of faculty and administrators over students. And that’s far from a towering achievement. That’s just shellfish.