The Economic Value of College Majors

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Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

The report released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, not only outlines the economic value of obtaining a bachelor’s degree, but which degrees carry the highest wages.

The report states that on average a full-time, full-year worker with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make 84 percent more over a lifetime than a colleague who has no better than a high school diploma. At the extreme, the highest earning major earns 314 percent more at the median level than the lowest-earning major at the median level. The report notes that earning potential should not be the sole reason why a student chooses a particular major, but, nevertheless, it should be something that the student considers.

The report gets its data from the 2009 American Community Survey results which included questions on what one studied in college. The most popular majors, according to the data, were business management and administration (8 percent), general business (5 percent), Accounting (5 percent), and nursing (4 percent). In comparison, the least popular majors include military technologies, soil science, and pharmacology (all less than 1 percent of all majors).

The three most popular majors ranged in salaries at the median from $58,000 to $63,000.

Petroleum Engineering is by far the highest-earning bachelor’s degree major with median earnings of $120,000. It is followed by pharmaceutical sciences and administration at $105,000 at the median; and mathematical and computer science with median earnings of $98,000.

On the other hand, the lowest paying majors are counseling psychology with median earnings of $29,000; early childhood education with median earnings of $36,000; and theology and religious vocations and human services and community organization, both of which have median earnings of $38,000.

Majors that earn the most also have the most extreme variations in earnings. For example, petroleum engineering has a variation of $107,000 between earnings at the 25th and 75th percentiles.

Female bachelor’s degree holders typically earn the most with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences and administration (median $100,000); information sciences (median $75,000); and chemical engineering (median $72,000).

However, male bachelor’s degree holders earn the most with a major in petroleum engineering (median $120,000); pharmaceutical sciences and administration (median $110,000); and chemical engineering (median $92,000).

Although bachelor’s degree majors often link to occupations, no one major is perfectly linked to a particular occupation.

The most “binding” majors include nursing (82 percent of nursing majors end up in health practice jobs, but 6 percent are found in management fields), special needs education also tightly links the major to the occupation as 71 percent of those majors are found in education.

However, a majority of majors lead to broad sets of occupations. For example, physics finds 19 percent of majors in computer occupations; 19 percent in management occupations; 14 percent in engineering occupations; and 9 percent in sales occupations.

Often times obtaining a graduate degree leads to higher earnings. Health and medical preparatory programs see the highest “bump” as a result of a graduate degree -- those with a graduate degree earn about 190 percent more than colleagues with only a bachelor’s degree. Zoology sees a 123 percent increase in earnings for those with a graduate degree compared with those with a Bachelor’s degree.

There is also a substantial gap in the earnings of African-Americans versus those of other ethnicities. Even in their highest-paying major, electrical engineering, African-Americans make $22,000 less than Caucasians and $12,000 less than Asians with the same major. A substantial wage differential is also seen between males and females.

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