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Want The Big Bucks? It's Not How You Study, It's What You Study

A new report reveals that your college major determines your future income more than your college choice.

With the encouragement of President Obama, who is creating a "scorecard" to rate American universities on things like their graduation rate and affordability, families are starting to look harder at the cost-benefit equation of going to college. But a new report just out from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce suggests that this emphasis may be misplaced. The best predictor of the value of your degree is not where you go to school, or even whether you go to college at all—it's your major.

A Degree Worse Than No Degree At All

You may have heard that bachelor's-degree holders on average earn 84% more over a lifetime than people with only a high school diploma. But the highest-paying college major, petroleum engineering, pays $120,000, three times more—a 314% difference at the median—than the lowest-paying college major, counseling psychology. To put it another way, people who work hard for four years to earn a degree in counseling psychology end up earning $29,000 a year, a thousand dollars less than the average of young adults just out of high school with no college education whatsoever.

Rolling The Dice

These numbers should influence how we decide whether a particular college is a good value. It can't be answered in the abstract; it hinges on whether the program is a good fit for a particular student. Most 18-year-olds have no idea what they want to be. No surprise, then, that about 80% of students end up changing majors. But if you start out in pharmacy ($105,000 a year, the second top-earning major) and discover your real love is early childhood education ($36,000), that posh private college just went from a fine idea to a risky choice.

Ironically, it's the high-paying technical majors that tend to have the most defectors, as undergraduates founder on calculus and organic chemistry.

Remaking The College Marketplace

College is not all about finding a job. There needs to be some room for exploration. One way to lower the risk of that exploration is to expand access to federal programs like Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness, giving students who choose lower-earning, but socially valuable, life paths the option to pay back loans in proportion to their income.

Another option that's increasingly likely with the unbundling of college—the availability of hundreds of individual college courses for free online, for example—is differential tuition pricing. Maybe in the future, engineering degrees and religion degrees, instead of costing exactly the same, will be priced what they are worth to the student.

[Image: Flickr user Aurelien Guichard]

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  • Wayward

    To think value is authentically or accurately represented by money and the economic system, particularly for something so personal as one's devoted field of study, is quite dangerous.
    Avoid having a life that revolves around institutions. The less decisions you make for primarily financial reasons, the happier you will be. It is unfortunate that the state of society to day often forces us to pay so much attention to finances, as if they were an end and not a means. Thrive and continue to contribute to society as naturally as possible - staying true to yourself is what is valuable. Unfortunately, you probably don't know yourself as well as you think you do.
    Job opportunities and happiness are not the same thing. Spread happiness, spread love, spread freedom, spread peace, spread awareness. The economy, though immensely beneficial to us all, is designed to do none of these.

  • Lyle Bedford

    Anya,  People who look back years later on their college experience will tell you that they learned to be a better citizen, a better parent, and a better worker by going to college and taking a variety of courses. If you are lucky, college can change your whole life.

    College is helpful for getting a job -- of course -- but it can be so much more than that.  Employers are now saying they prefer the well-rounded college graduates who can think on their feet, know a little about other cultures, have done service learning out in the community... and most of the jobs that will be out there in 2023 haven't even been invented yet, so we need to have a flexible skill-set.  College is and should be much more than one's major.

  • Jake B.

    "College is not all about finding a job." -- This is laughable. I've never met a college student who isn't seeking to become more employable with their degree.

    The reason petroleum engineers go out to industry after graduation and earn paychecks of $120K is that they are WORTH that value. The market has a need for their skill sets, and their intense studies trained them to a confidence level that industry demands. Other engineering fields follow similarly.

    I think your suggestion of Income-Based Repayment & Public Service Loan Forgiveness is highly flawed. Would you buy something you can not afford? No. If you do, you are ill advised. You suggest that because of a poor decision to take out loans knowing that you will never be capable of paying them back, the burden shall be placed on the shoulder of others to settle. A reward for a bad decision? I've never encountered one.

    In full disclosure, I am an engineering student at a large university in the US. I decided to pursue an engineering degree because I knew I was capable of finishing it, and I had worked my tail off to afford it (and continue to...).

  • Samuel L. Matson

    Some people prefer the opportunity to improve society over the opportunity to financially capitalize on it. I studied fine art, but that didn't stop the engineers at Samsung and IBM from consulting me on what to do with their engineering prowess.  That influence comes with a nice paycheck, but also the privilege of working with world changing companies that you will most likely never have the chance to consult for... unless your degree says MIT or Harvard.

  • Alli Shea

    Hi Anya,

    Wish you fleshed this out a bit more! The stats about engineering being the highest paying major is hardly news...I would be interested to see what an engineering major from a community college compared to an Ivy make.  Same with the traditionally lower paying majors, too.

    Important to note that a massive amount of students are qualified (and take) positions out of their major.  I studied Rhetoric and Creative Writing, and now work at an e-commerce start-up.  I would be interested to know what the most popular majors for (high paying) entry consultants are...I would guess that psychology is up there.  

    Well written, nonetheless.

  • Jmodio

    I think startups can often be an exception. Being around the NYC startup scene quite often, I've come to know plenty of people coming from all different educational backgrounds and majors that might seem irrelevant to what they're actually doing. – Unlike a large institution well set in its ways that will only hire someone with a specific degree in a specific area.