Study Tells Students What Their Major is Worth

By Kathy Matheson

PHILADELPHIA - The choice of undergraduate major in college is strongly tied to a student's future earnings, with the highest-paying majors providing salaries of about 300 percent more than the lowest-paying, according to a study released Tuesday.

Based on first-of-its-kind Census data, the report by Georgetown University in Washington also found that majors are highly segregated by race and gender.

College graduates overall make 84 percent more over a lifetime than those with only high school diplomas, the study said. But further analysis of 171 majors shows that various undergraduate majors can lead to significantly different median wages.

Petroleum engineering majors make about $120,000 a year, compared with $29,000 annually for counseling psychology majors, researchers found. Math and computer science majors earn $98,000 in salary while early childhood education majors get paid about $36,000.

"It's important that you go to college and get a (bachelor's degree), but it's almost three to four times more important what you take," said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce. "The majors that are most popular are not the ones that make the most money."

"What's it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors" analyzes data from the 2009 American Community Survey, whose results were released last year. It's the first time the Census asked individuals about their undergraduate majors, enabling researchers to tie in salary data, Carnevale said.

The study found that white men are concentrated in the highest-earning majors, including engineering and pharmaceutical sciences, while women gravitate toward the lowest-earning majors like education, art and social work.

The report also categorized the 171 majors into 15 fields, discovering different majors led to different industries. About 43 percent of law and public policy majors end up in public administration, but only 13 percent of social science majors do. A higher portion of social science majors end up in finance, researchers found.

Other findings:

  • The most popular major group is business, accounting for 25 percent of all students. The least popular are industrial arts and agriculture, with 1.6 percent each.
  • White men have higher median earnings across all fields except three. Asians pull down the top median salaries in law and public policy ($55,000), psychology and social work ($48,000), and biology and life science ($53,000).
  • The field with the highest concentrations of whites is agriculture and natural resources (90 percent), while the highest concentration of Asians is in computers and mathematics (16 percent). Law and public policy has the highest concentration of African-Americans (14 percent) and Hispanics (10 percent).
  • Fields with virtually no unemployment: geological and geophysical engineering, military technologies, pharmacology and school student counseling.
  • Fields with the highest unemployment, ranging from 16 percent to 11 percent: social psychology, nuclear engineering, and educational administration and supervision.

The data is important considering the high cost of a college degree and the significant loan burdens taken on by some students to obtain one, Carnevale said.

"We don't have a system in the United States where we align what you take with career prospects," Carnevale said. "Nobody ever tells you when you go to college what happened to the other people who took it before you."

The researchers' longitudinal look at lifetime earnings seems to echo a more short-term analysis of the job market by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

The Bethlehem, Pa.-based group reports that engineering majors account for seven of the top 10 highest-paying majors for the class of 2011. The other three are computer science, information science and business systems networking/telecommunications.

Chemical engineering heads the list with an average salary offer of nearly $67,000, according the group's spring survey.

Still, Rachel Brown, director of the career center at Temple University in Philadelphia, noted that the average person changes careers three to five times in a lifetime. And while median salary is certainly something students should be aware of, it shouldn't be the deciding factor, she said.

"Take that into consideration, but look at the whole picture," Brown said. "What are you doing every day? What are the job responsibilities? What are the values of the occupation in general? Advancement potential?"

Answering those kinds of questions is how Drexel University junior Meaghan Donchak chose her major of corporate communication and public relations.

Donchak, 22, of East Windsor, N.J., said she knew her strengths were reading, writing and communicating. But even after settling on public relations, her own research showed such work at nonprofits paid less than corporate or government work, and she adjusted her track accordingly.

Donchak hopes her career will allow her to travel, meet people and live comfortably. The Georgetown study found communications and journalism majors earn $50,000 annually, rising to $62,000 with a graduate degree.

"The most important thing is not the money. It's really hard to convince people of that, especially people our age," Donchak said. "It's doing what you love to do. You don't want to wake up every day dreading going to work."

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Students should look-up (Unemployment rate for college grads, EPI Analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, and what the numbers from 2009-2011) and see what the numbers say.

Also pass it on for all to see for themeselves and share what they find with others.

I would love to hear from other students from the Class of 2009, 2010, and 2011 and see what they have to say to this and why.

July 24 2011 at 12:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There is one thing I would like to know and have not seen what are the (UNEMPLOYMENT RATE FOR COLLEGE GRADUATES FROM 2009 TO 2011). And is it true 1.7 million college students of class of 2011 graduate, is facing one of the highest unemployment rates for college graduates in U.S. History.

I and many other College Students would like to see the dated on this and what our hard work, time, and money is getting us today in a time of high unemployment.

Why is it, we never see any hard-dated with numbers with the problems facing college students after graduates and how long its taking them to find a job in their area if any.

July 24 2011 at 12:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Don, female domination in college is the trend today. Except perhaps in chemical and electrical engineering, women are cleaning up in college and men are woefully falling behind, men from all social economic groups, not just minority men. Pay attention to HS graduations... who is winning the prizes and graduating top of the class!

June 10 2011 at 11:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Ron, excellent post. Here's the rarely discussed factor of why your situation is never discussed and why the field of auto repair (of high tech autos) is screaming for people--the educational establishment, it's lobbyists (teachers unions) and even presidents (Clinton wanted everyone to go to college and become a computer engineer)--have implored everyone to go to college.... and put many financial incentives all over the economy to lure more people into the education industry--with the more likely career paths (non-engineering) in the social sciences and education--where the most likely employment is GOVERNMENT!! Our K-12 schools do not focus on the fundamental math skills that are so critical to the building trades, manufacturing and high skill technical careers like yours. The education establishment keeps trying to jam square pegs into round holes. LIke you said, there is no sure path (because of the educational establishment) and you have to find your own way--you have and you should be proud. Thank you!

June 10 2011 at 11:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Joeseph, the demographics are included to show the fact that it's not the sex or ethnicity that results in a lower salary or lifetime earnings as feminists and other "equal pay" regulators would have us believe with their superficial analysis. Today (not 30 years ago) it is actually the major and job/career choice that determines the pay--the market values some jobs/careers over others. That's all.

June 10 2011 at 10:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What exactly is the point of the article to bring race and sex ("gender") into the article? Who cares what race / sex the people are in a particular major. Nobody is discouraged nor prevented from choosing any major because of race / sex, so its irrelevant in the first place and has nothing to do with the subject of the article in the second place. Media bias, much?

May 26 2011 at 3:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Joseph's comment

The POINT is that it's information, data... and that's the point of the research itself! It's not necessarily about who is or is not discouraged from choosing certain majors. But it does indicate differences in the majors chosen by males and females and different ethnic groups.

It's not irrelevant, and the subject of this article itself is actually irrelevant. This article is about the results of census research, which includes information on race and gender, among other things. This census examined a variety of types of data related to education and majors, and this article simply reported those results to us. It's called research, and it has nothing to do with media bias. In fact, this article is very unbiased: it does not really comment on the results of the research, but merely reports those results.

No offence, but try being less paranoid. It will make you less weird.

June 02 2011 at 7:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So Donchauk "loves" to read, write and talk ?? What if you love to "win" and love to "make money" ? I liked that and joined a prop desk.

Ultimately school just gives you some basic education which quite frankly doesn't contribute a lot to future success or aptitude. The most important things are drive, passion and hard work. Even a High school graduate with drive, passion and hard work can do better than some erudite Ph,D scholar.

May 26 2011 at 3:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to IAF's comment
Steve Mitchell

It depends on what you call "doing better". After all even chimpanzees can make money. However, most Americans who are only high school graduates can neither read nor write. That is probably one of the reasons why Americans never paid any attention to political decisions that will now frustrate their economic future for the rest of their lives. If it were just about the money, we would all want to pursue jobs on Wall Street, or cocaine dealers or movie stars. I mean look at Ron below. He makes more than a chemical engineer, (which is not much money in 2011), yet at as a manager in a firm, he also can't write a basic email or letter to his staff or others in the firm. Although his point about finding a 'niche' is well-taken.

May 27 2011 at 2:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Just a different point of veiw if I may, first a little about me, I never went to collage or got a degree, in fact I have a High School GED, (hated English, I am an American, not an Englishman), that I got in the Air Force. I loved working on cars, it started out as a hobby, when I left the Air Force years ago, I went into the field seriously, first with On The Job training with who ever would have me, then I used the GI bill to take a formal trades school course and got a diploma, all the time learning everything I could suck in from the masters in the trade, no collage offered an automotive/service/repair/or diagnostic course in automotive repair for a career, and they still don't. I read books, industry publications, and finally got my ASE certificate's. I am currently a Technical Director at an automotive transmission remanufacturing plant, and I make more a year than a Chemical Engineer, why, it's all about demand and supply. Seems no-one wants to work on cars for a living, like it's benigth them, todays automobiles are amoung some of the most Hi-tech machines in the world and the market is literally screeming for competant trained technicians to work on them, dealers, everybody, in the business.
Last weekend I attended a seminar were we attend to learn from each other and gain knew knowlege, I attend several of these a year. The speaker about half way through his presentation asked, "how many of you are below the age of 25", no one raised his hand. Then he asked, "how many are below the age of 30", only a few of hands went up. He then said, "Oh my G**, who will replace us"? Most of the attendes are in thier 40's, 50's and 60's, I'm 63. Many of the men at this seminar were making over $100,00 a year, in a field not offered by collages. It's not an easy road to travel, there are no road maps, but there are great rewards if you seek them. Ever seen a customer smile when you fixed a problem knowone else could, worth it!

May 25 2011 at 9:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ron's comment

Problem is Ron, its not just about money. It's about what you have to put in to get the money. I am sure there are jobs that pay much much more like working on an oil rig that require you to run around day. People don't like that. The mantra is "Least amount of input for greatest amount of output". Auto-engineering is not really geared to be "highly rewarding" on a short term basis. I'm a mechanical engineer because I liked machines when I was younger but frankly I enjoy what I do now much more because it's less hassle, more secure and much more rewarding and most of all I get to spend time with family.

May 26 2011 at 4:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

so what youre saying is "Dont waste your time being a teacher!!!" good news for the future of our country!! LOL

May 25 2011 at 8:14 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Dah - This is not news nor is it suprising. Of course, science and engineering lead to high income professions. You actually have to do a lot of work in college to get this type of degree, not just count rocks or sort beads like other degrees. I will take exception to these being male dominated. My daughter just graduated from MSU with a BS in Microbiology. I would say that in her graduation class there was a significantly greater number of women than men, so this idea of male domination is over.

May 25 2011 at 8:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Don's comment
Steve Mitchell

Yes, the prediction is that because women outnumber men considerably as both college students, and soon to be in the weighting of professors, that most collegiate women will have to marry uneducated males and that most males will be unemployable. A sampling of this has been seen in the recent unemployment numbers where most of the laid off were men, and I believe it was last year or the year before when women actually surpassed men in the employment percentages for the first time in US history.

May 27 2011 at 2:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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