Major Decisions

Report finds wide gaps in earning power of different majors. Women and minorities cluster in programs that don't pay off.
May 24, 2011

Statistics say that a college freshman looking to make money upon graduation would be well-served by majoring in science, getting a graduate degree, and moving into a managerial role later in life. He should stay away from arts and education fields, which are financial and vocational dead-ends. And the advice goes double if the freshman is a she, though she is less likely to follow the recommendations.

That's the message of a new report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which uses new data from the Census Bureau to explore the median salaries and career paths of college graduates from the last 40 years. The census surveyed more than 3 million bachelor's degree-holders in America about their majors, current positions, and current salaries.

The salary figures complied for the report are what each person made in 2009, so they represent a mix of entry-level, mid-career, and late-career workers. Because the report is based on census data, it is a snapshot of graduates between 25 and 64 and does not take into account changes over time.

For 15 broad categories of majors, such as engineering, physical science, and business, the report explores the median and quartile pay, the percentage of the major comprising women and minorities, and the percentage of individuals from that major who went on to get graduate degrees. The report also breaks down those groups and explores similar data for 171 individual majors.

Some of the results are to be expected. Science, engineering, and business majors tend to be better-off financially than majors in liberal arts and humanities, education, and counseling. In addition to a wide discrepancy among average salaries, the study finds that the most popular majors have not been the ones leading to high-paying jobs, that female and minority students have tended to cluster in low-paying fields, and that graduate degrees have been essentially required for some undergraduate majors if those students were to find good jobs.

At the high end of the spectrum was petroleum engineering, whose graduates had a median salary of $120,000. At the low end were counseling psychology majors, whose median salary was $29,000.

Anthony P. Carnevale, the report's author, said that the message of the report is not to pull support from humanities and arts programs, whose graduates have earned a fraction of what their counterparts in business and engineering have, but rather to provide a set of data that are not present in the current discussion about degrees. "The essential message is this," he said. "It matters that you go to college and that you get a degree, but what you study matters up to four times as much. We shouldn’t dissuade people from studying what they are interested in, but if a student is going to go into the arts, they ought to know what the options are going to be."

He suspects that right now, people are focusing on going to college and think that getting a degree is enough to get them a well-paying job in the future. While college graduates, on average, have made 84 percent more over their lifetime than individuals with only a high school diploma, and almost every major tends to be worth it in the end, students from some majors are locked into career paths that don't pay well.

Critics of reports about high-paying majors say that focusing solely on money when making the decision about what to study would be a mistake. One reason, they say, is that choosing a major and career are important life decisions, and that being unhappy in a high-paying field might not be worth it. The second reason, which Carnevale also notes, is that opportunities for advancement play a significant role in how much individuals end up making, and that a diverse educational background is commonly cited by employers as a requisite for promotion.

"Someone needs to be out there telling students that the choice of major is not the only important thing, and that the promotion piece to a career is important," said Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which has encouraged colleges to focus in majors and in general education on critical thinking and communication skills that may be useful for many career paths. "If you want long-term success, you need the kind of broad education that will help you move forward."

Because the report is based on U.S. Census data, resulting in a sample size of almost 3 million people, Carnevale said its findings are more exact and thorough than what researchers have been capable of in the past. Previous studies have relied on self-reported data by individuals already employed or significantly smaller surveys of graduates. Carnevale said he thinks the data will spur significantly more research on the subject, particularly at the state level.

The medians used in the report are determined by the 2009 salaries of all individuals who majored in a particular subject and are currently working, so they do not just represent entry-level workers or what people earn at the middle or end of their careers. They also represent what has happened over the past 40 years, but not necessarily what the current job market is like. To base the comparison solely on bachelor's degrees, the report's authors eliminate those individuals who earned graduate degrees. At other points in the report, however, the authors do discuss how many individuals of each major go to graduate school and how that affects their earnings.

Top 10 Majors with the Highest and Lowest Median Earnings (no advanced degree)

Major (highest) Median
Petroleum Engineering $120,000
Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences & Administration 105,000
Mathematics and Computer Science 98,000
Aerospace Engineering 87,000
Chemical Engineering 86,000
Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering 85,000
Mechanical Engineering 82,000
Metallurgical Engineering 80,000
Mining and Mineral Engineering 80,000
Major (lowest) Median
Counseling Psychology $29,000
Early Childhood Education 36,000
Theology and Religious Vocations 38,000
Human Services and Community Organization 38,000
Social Work 39,000
Drama and Theater Arts 40,000
Studio Art 40,000
Communication Disorders Science and Service 40,000
Visual and Performing Arts 40,000
Health and Medical Preparatory Programs 40,000

Basic economics would say that rational individuals would cluster in those programs that end up paying the most, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Aside from business majors, which totaled about 25 percent of all majors, the most popular generic fields were the low-paying "liberal arts and humanities" and "education" majors, both attracting about 10 percent of all students.

Business management and administration -- the most popular field, with 8 percent of all majors -- had a median salary of $58,000. Other business fields in the top 10 most popular majors were general business ($60,000), accounting ($63,000), marketing and market research ($58,000), and finance ($65,000). Less lucrative but still in the top 10 were psychology ($45,000) and elementary education ($40,000).

Larry Ashley, a professor of counselor education at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who directs the college's human services major, said there is no shortage of student or employer demand for his program. The field, which is essentially training for people who want to become counselors and therapists, is relatively new as an undergraduate program. Human services and community organization majors without graduate degrees rank close to the bottom in terms of salary, according to the report. "You don't go into the people business to get rich," Ashley said.

Carnevale said one finding that surprised him was the degree to which women and minorities clustered in low-paying fields with few opportunities for advancement. Ninety-seven percent of early childhood education majors, with a median wage of $36,000, were women. Women also dominated other low-wage fields such as medical assisting, student counseling, and other education fields. On the other hand, in high-paying fields such as mechanical ($80,000), electrical ($85,000), and marine ($82,000) engineering, more than 90 percent of students were male.

But even when women chose majors with high compensation, they were still paid about 30 percent less than males. For example, women in chemical engineering, a typically male-dominated field, had a median salary of $72,000, while men had a median salary of $92,000. Only in a handful of fields, such as pharmacy and information science, did women's pay equal or exceed that of men. The report only examines full-time, full-year employees, which eliminates the argument that lower women's pay is attributable to the number that work part-time. The report does not address why the discrepancy exists, but other research suggests that pay differences are attributable to social and cultural factors, including bias and barriers to promotion.

African-American students also tended to be overrepresented in low-paying majors such as counseling, social work, and community organizing. Asian students tended to cluster in engineering, mathematics, and computer science fields, and had higher median salaries than their white counterparts who studied in the same fields. Hispanic students selected a much more diverse array of majors, with some high-paying fields, such as biological engineering, and some low-paying fields, such as court reporting, present in their top 10 most popular majors.

Many of the low-paying fields provided little room for advancement and a low ratio of managers to employees, which helps account for why the median pay is so low. Carnevale said that most individuals over 35 who got their degrees in science and engineering fields had moved from research or engineering jobs into management or sales of engineering equipment, which tend to pay substantially more. Teachers, on the other hand, had few options for advancement and could not easily change careers.

This is where the argument for a broad-based education comes in. Surveys routinely find that employers want their employees to have a deep knowledge of their topic but a broad range of skills, and some worry that undergraduate programs too chock-full of math and science courses are producing individuals who can't handle managerial responsibilities.

Another surprising finding from the Georgetown report was that some undergraduate majors essentially required a graduate degree to secure a good job. Almost half of all students who got undergraduate degrees in the humanities and liberal arts, physical sciences, biological sciences, and education went on to get graduate degrees. For some science fields such as physics, chemistry, zoology, and genetics, more than 60 percent of students went on to get a graduate degree, and those students saw a large boost in salary as a result. Educational administration and supervision (89 percent) and school and student counseling (91 percent) both essentially mandated graduate degrees.

Carnevale said he hopes this report will help individuals discover high-paying fields they might not have known about, such as pharmacy, as well as what fields within their broad interests could end up paying well. He said that within generic areas such as business, the value of different majors varies considerably, comparing the low-paying hospitality field to the high-paying accounting field.

"This is going to be the real course catalog for parents and students," he said.


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