What College Degrees Are Really Worth

A new study from Georgetown University breaks down which majors of study result in the highest career earnings. Art majors, ask a friend if you can borrow his computer to read this.


Steve Jobs may claim that the humanities are important for colleges, but Apple's not hiring philosophers to build iPhones. A new report from Georgetown University confirms much of what we already knew about the financial payoff of college majors: Hard-scientists swim in a Scrooge McDuck-size vault of gold, while literature majors panhandle with multi-syllabic signs. The report further confirms many of the unfortunate stereotypes of poor minorities and female caregivers that progressive Americans would sooner forget.

Science rules, social drools

Engineers are the king of the cash hill, raking in a median salary of $75K, while Psychology and Social Worker graduates beg for the trickle-down table scraps, amounting to $42K. The brightest light in the non-hard sciences is the Social Sciences, with economists earning $70K, using their savvy knowledge of money to rake in more than their compatriots in both finance and architecture.

Art majors are pretty much doomed to small studio apartments, maxing out at $46K for a career in film (the graph below represents the bottom 25 percentile to the top 75th percentile earnings for each major; dotted line indicates median).

For (really) longterm thinkers, or for those who love studying, graduate school boosts earnings roughly 20-65%, which is several hundred thousand dollars in life-time earnings—if you can make it through the debt-addled, post-grad, Ramen-noodle dirge of your late 20s and 30s.

For the risk averse, occupations in military technologies and school student counseling had 100% employment; studio arts had a measly 9% (but what about artists who draw missiles?).

Stereotypes Abound

The study is a gender and race stereotype smorgasbord: Top fields for women are early childhood education and medical assisting services; men can expect to earn the least if they pursue drama or elementary education occupations.

Even within Elementary Education, men earn about $3,000 more (at $39,000), which is a gap that is consistent across every occupation. "Gender inequality, as expressed in pay differences, is rampant across virtually every major," notes the report.

Occupation by race could possible be the worst stereotype offender: Asians concentrate in Computer Engineering and Statistics, while African Americans major the most in Social Work, Counseling, and Community Organization (though, this last one did work out quite well for at least one well-known person).

The whitest occupation is Forestry.


Georgetown's report is fodder for the ongoing debate over whether college is worth the crushing tuition debt and time lost to studying sociology. The report claims a Bachelor's is worth a salivating 85% increase in income. However, the study is only meant to be a snapshot of the American workforce and did not control for any other factors in this income estimate, such as occupation or individual traits related to business success.

When other factors associated with business success are taken into account, Professor of Economics at the University of California David Neumark tells Fast Company that economists generally find around a 35% increase in earnings.

All of this is for naught, if you're on board with PayPal Founder Peter Thiel's $2 million bet that smart kids do better dropping out of school and starting businesses. As his theory goes, the intelligence and ambition of successful graduates are the real reason college appears to boost earnings. The results of his experiment, and the worth of a college degree, is still anyone's guess.

All we know is that if a Petrochemical Engineer goes on a date with a Studio Artist, the former is probably paying for dinner.

Follow Greg Ferenstein on Twitter. Also, follow Fast Company on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user The Wolf]

Add New Comment


  • Thomasst Thomas

    As I get older, I've looked to choose my educational goals according to interests and very much income. These decisions aren't always just about me and what I want when I have others to support and consider. Young aspiring college students often choose based on what feels good which is wonderful.  Now, if I really want to learn or study about humanities or sociology, I can always read on my own time.

  • heather

    I agree with Dan.  Apple requires their employees to have a college degree, and sometimes a higher degree, yet Steve Jobs never graduated college.  With this in mind, because the world is getting so competitive when it comes to higher education, many people have to go back to college or a career school just to get ahead in the work force.  For people without any sort of degree or certificate past their high school diploma, it can be challenging to find work in any industry, regardless of what it pays.

  • Dan Mendelevitz

    It is interesting that companies started by college dropouts such as Facebook, Microsoft and PayPal require a college degree to work there.

  • Gabriel

    Another in the torrent of articles about these data...sigh...
    Too bad we keep reverting to really inappropriate economic models where earnings and price are the only measures of impact.  Yeah, it's hard, really hard, to include other variables in these reports.  Hmmm....I wonder what the worth of life is...you know..the part spent being happy or being able to take time off to hang with your family.  It's very romantic to promote the cliche of the starving artist or the futility of sociology in this age of computers and engineering marvels.  I really like science and doing engineering, but I wonder what also is the impact of people who are alike (business peeps, engineering peeps, computer peeps, etc) banding together, and not looking outward for ideas or even a touch of functional diversity.  Ever asked an HR person where they get their job descriptions or how they filter candidates?  People like people who are like themselves.  Stay away from those critical and crazy artists.  Nuf said.

  • Bill Weaver

    Yes one can make more money if they finish college, and find a job.  There are reports out there saying that 60 percent of graduates in science, engineering, and computer science will not find employment this year.  If I was 18 years old again I would go to a trade school and learn how to fix the electric windmills, and use the internet to get a college education. 

  • Carlos serrano

    What college degrees are really worth? Isn't that a little too much personal? How about which color is the best?

  • Dan Brantley

    Salaries are only the beginning. The adage that "it's not what you make, it's what you keep" is still true. An artist making $40k per year that lives on $30k and saves the rest will be much better off in ten years than the attorney who makes $100k but spends $99k (or even $102k) Factor in the lifestyle choice of no children (DINKS - Double Income No Kids) and soon the two "poor" teachers or social workers, are retiring in their fifties to cruise around the world.

  • sean els

    I only have a Diploma in Graphic Design - yet I easily out-earn most of my Degree saddled friends.
    The difference? - I have been running my own company for 20 years now - my friends have always worked for someone else.
    I learnt very early in my working life through observation - no-one is ever going to pay me what I'm worth - except me.

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    congrats, but you're the exception. certainly i believe entrepreneurship should be required for all degrees

  • Iamforeal

    Yea, and my journalism degree tells me that Fast Company's content and writers are not what they use to be. They take a bit of data and make a news snippet. I've read this magazine for over ten years. Maybe it's just the online articles. I don't subscribe anymore.

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    i read the study pretty thoroughly and do note that the authors don't use the variables typical to econometric labor studies. do you have a different interpretation of the data?

  • nathan goldberg

    Hugely interesting and in terms of what we decide to do with our lives, useless. I hope.

  • zhenglish105

    Google in the input: = tntn.us ==you can find many brand names, even more surprising is that he will sell you the unexpected o(∩_∩)o

  • John Mack

    General statistics do not necessarily apply to individuals.

    Of course it is imprudent to major in Studio Art expecting to get a "Studio Art" job at high pay. Studio Art is an entrepreneurial field, with the artists hustling to sell their art or positioning themselves to own a gallery, work at an art auction house, or marry a wealthy person. All of these things require more than a degree and a major. Some go into retail and can do quite well. Others take trainee jobs. Some inherit.

    If you are not from a well-off family, please go to a state school if you want to major in Studio Art. Avoid debt. And set some goals, make connections and realize that you future is up to you, not your major.

    As for technical grads, they start high but three years later they can work right next to a new grad with a higher salary. They can also become obsolete in their skills and be dumped in their 30s, 40s, 50s.

    The biggest correlation to success, except for a few, remains family background. Those from well off families, or less well off families with the right connections, have lots of help in making a success of any major.

    Less well off students can profit from picking up a good job-oriented AS degree cheap at a community college. In some cases liberal arts majors use these community college programs, instead of expansive grad schools, to position themselves for good jobs. They normally need to take only 4 to six classes to earn the certification they need. Cheap.

    Public Relations is a field that only requires the proven ability to write journalistically (not a journalism or communications major), an internship, and some hustle during that internship. There are other field where a productive internships (demo projects, connections) are the core credentials, the dgrees being secondary.

    The clueless will be mugged by reality, but will probably adapt to what they have to do within a few years. Many others know what to do right from the start.

    The real problem is selling students on the idea that a college major will magically take care of them, inserting them passively into jobs. That's the great American hustle of our time.

  • Gregory Ferenstein

    you're right on many levels, the study did not factor in other variables, such as family background, related to success (nor was it intended to). But, it does give an interesting snapshot of how different majors play out in the market. its less for college students and more for policy makers.

  • Brandon Shockley

    I should also add that Martha Nussbaum has some very worthwhile commentary on the value of humanities to the world economy. Humanities stimulates critical thinking and encourages us the empathize with others, two vital problem solving skills.