NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Economic Value of College Majors

May 31, 2011

On average, bachelor's degrees pay off.  But a new study confirms that some undergraduate majors pay off a lot more than others.  In fact, the difference in earnings potential between one major and another can be more than 300 percent, says Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

While there is a lot of variation in earnings over a lifetime, the authors find that all undergraduate majors are "worth it," even taking into account the cost of college and lost earnings.  However, the lifetime advantage ranges from $1,090,000 for engineering majors to $241,000 for education majors.

  • The top 10 majors with the highest median earnings are: petroleum engineer ($120,000); pharmacy/pharmaceutical sciences and administration ($105,000); mathematics and computer sciences ($98,000); aerospace engineering ($87,000); chemical engineering ($86,000); electrical engineering ($85,000); naval architecture and marine engineering ($82,000); mechanical engineering, metallurgical engineering, and mining and mineral engineering (each with median earnings of $80,000).
  • The 10 majors with the lowest median earnings are: counseling/psychology ($29,000); early childhood education ($36,000); theology and religious vocations ($38,000); human services and community organizations ($38,000); social work ($39,000); drama and theater arts, studio arts, communication disorders sciences and services, visual and performing arts, and health and medical preparatory programs (each at $40,000).

Liberal arts and humanities majors end up in the middle of the pack in terms of earnings and employment.  They are the third most popular major group, and earn median incomes of $47,000.  Moreover, about 40 percent of people with these majors obtain a graduate degree, reaping a return of almost 50 percent.  Liberal arts and humanities majors generally fare well in the workforce, ending up in professional, white-collar and education occupations.

As to the question of graduate degrees, the report reveals that obtaining a graduate-level degree does lead to higher earnings, but how much in additional earnings is also driven by what you study.  The highest earnings bump in graduate degrees can be found in the areas related to health care and biology.

Source: Anthony P. Carnevale, Jeff Strohl and Michelle Melton, "What's it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors," Georgetown University, May 24, 2011.

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