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What’s Your College Degree Worth?

Written by Nickel - 15 Comments

What's Your College Degree Worth?

Earlier this week, I ran across a study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The primary goal of this study was to estimate the economic value of various college majors, and the results were quite interesting.

One of the big takeaways from this study is that college graduates can expect to earn 84% more over their lifetime (on average, of course) than someone with nothing more than a high school diploma. But what about difference between majors. Surely some degrees result in higher earnings than others. Right? Right.

In fact, the highest earning major (Petroleum Engineer) has a median salary that is more than 300% higher than the median salary of the lowest earning major (Counseling/Psychology). Curious as to how the other undergraduate majors stacked up? Read on…

Ten highest earning majors

Here are the ten majors with the highest median annual earnings:

  1. Petroleum Engineer ($120,000)
  2. Pharmacy/Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration ($105,000)
  3. Math and Computer Science ($98,000)
  4. Aerospace Engineering ($87,000)
  5. Chemical Engineering ($86,000)
  6. Electrical Engineering ($85,000)
  7. Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering ($82,000)
  8. Mechanical Engineering ($80,000)
  9. Metallurgical Engineering ($80,000)
  10. Mineral Engineering ($80,000)

Ten lowest earning majors

And here are the ten majors with the lowest median annual earnings:

  1. Counseling/Psychology ($29,000)
  2. Early Childhood Education ($36,000)
  3. Theology and Religious Vocations ($38,000)
  4. Human Services and Community Organizations ($38,000)
  5. Social Work ($39,000)
  6. Drama and Theater Arts ($40,000)
  7. Studio Arts ($40,000)
  8. Communication Disorders ($40,000)
  9. Visual and Performing Arts ($40,000)
  10. Health and Medical Preparatory Programs ($40,000)

Other general findings

Some other general findings were that Liberal Arts and Humanities majors tend to end up somewhere in the middle of the pack, with a median annual income of $47,000. Also, there are still clear racial and gender gaps in most fields.

For example, even in a highly specialized field such as Electrical Engineering, African Americans earn $22,000/year less that Caucasians and $12,000 less than Asians with the same major. As for gender differences, there is a tendency for women to hold degrees in lower paying fields, but even in higher paying fields such as Chemical Engineering, they earn $20,000 less than their male counterparts.

What about graduate degrees? The good news is that a graduate degree does add to your earning potential, though the extent of this effect depends on your field of study. The largest gain is in the general areas of Healthcare and Biology, with the lowest gains coming in Atmospheric Sciences, Studio Arts, and Petroleum Engineering.

Finally, what about finding a job? The fields with the highest likelihood of finding employment include Geological and Geophysical Engineering, Military Technologies, Pharmacology, and School Student Counseling. At the other end of the spectrum are Social Psychology, Nuclear Engineering, and Education Administration and Supervision.

What about you?

Okay, now it’s your turn… Did earning potential influence your choice of major? Are you actually working in a field relevant to your undergraduate education? Have you sought out graduate training? If so, was it worth it? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Source: Georgetown CEW

Published on June 3rd, 2011
Modified on June 11th, 2011 - 15 Comments
Filed under: Education

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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15 Responses to “What’s Your College Degree Worth?”

  1. 1
    MoneyInYour20s Says:

    Money was a factor in deciding my major but it was not the primary factor. Fortunately I ended up studying a field that I’m both passionate about and able to find work in.

    I think graduate work can be extremely valuable depending on what you want to do in the long term. It’s very relevant in my field and I’m planning on going back to get my MBA after working for a few years.

  2. 2
    rosa rugosa Says:

    “Early Childhood Educatin” doesn’t really sound like something that should rake in the big bucks :)

  3. 3
    Nickel Says:

    rosa: Hah. Good catch. Fixed it. :-)

  4. 4
    Corinne Says:

    I hate that these studies never seem to account for individual differences between college and high school graduates. On average people who go to college and graduate have higher socioeconomic status, intelligence and ambition than people who don’t and this could account for a lot of the higher earning power.
    Personally, I have a degree that I used for one year and have never made over $30k while my husband never went to college and supports us both.

  5. 5
    jim Says:

    They cite wage differences of $22k, $12k, and $20k within engineering fields based on race and gender. I’m betting that they are not taking experience or other factors into account. If the average man in the field has 15 years experience and the average woman has 10 years then that alone would explain a 20k wage gap.

    Otherwise that would be outright and extremely obvious illegal wage discrimination.

    I’ve seen a study while back that compared wages in engineering and if you controlled for all factors such as experience, etc, then difference in salary between genders was only 2-3%.

  6. 6
    Gayle Says:

    @Jim That’s a good point. I don’t know if they controlled for the changes in the number of women in engineering. However, in at least Computer Science (and probably other forms of engineering), the percentage of women has actually gone down.

  7. 7
    John Says:

    I made the decision to be a mechanical engineer at about 14-16 years of age. I completed the degree and now hold a job that uses the degree. While earning potential was a factor in my decision, it had more to do with my drive to create and innovate. I am in a lower cost area and I have about 5 years total experience so my earnings are significantly under the median for my major/profession.

    +1 for Educatin the children lol.

  8. 8
    Doug Says:

    I chose economics as a major and wound up working with a currency and bond trading group in Chicago. I learned to trade futures and options contracts. I am currently retired in my early 40’s living in the San Francisco bay area.

    There was no salary, only trading profits or losses. Fortunately, things worked out. I now get to offer my time to my children and the community where I live. Also, the financial reward has allowed me to establish trusts companies to help others in need, whether for education needs, professional training, or hardship relief.

  9. 9
    Jack Foley Says:

    I think if u pick a major just for the money, it can be risky..

    doing what u love and getting a good wage is far more rewarding than say for example being a doctor on call earning $200,000 a year and never seeing your kids

    thoughts?

  10. 10
    Carol Says:

    Money was not a factor in picking my major. I had a hard enough time picking something I’d want to stick with for four years. I majored in Economics. I work in the financial services industry, but what I do really has nothing to do with my major. But I make a decent living.

    My husband majored in mechanical engineering and has a job as a mechanical engineer. He was making almost the same as I do, until he switched companies so he could get more accurate pay for his skill level. It really is frustrating how company raises do not keep pace with market value.

  11. 11
    KDB Says:

    If only I knew then what I know now…I never would have majored in psychology. It has opened some doors, and was very interesting, but in itself hasn’t paid off. But at the time I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

  12. 12
    Holly Says:

    What I do has little to do with my undergraduate major. Money wasn’t an influencing factor in my choice of undergrad majors, but it did influence me to go to business school.

    It’s been over 15 years since I finished business school, and it was worth every penny. I’m not retired in my early 40s like the trader, but I’m never sorry to go to work and I earn enough to support my family on a single income if something happens to my husband. Who can ask for more than that?

  13. 13
    coxmba Says:

    I joined the Army because I didn’t want to work 45 years of my life away. I Retired early because the federal government decision the army was to big after the first gulf war 91. I have a check every month, free medical and a nice home. I study business management for undergraduate and earned an executive MBA for graduate school. All paid for by my uncle sam. If I had to go to work for income, its good to know I’ll make a good check without losing the one I’m recieving. Residual income is something they don’t teach in college. I guess I’m lucky. Only wish I did my undergraduate in engineering. Not for the money, just to see if I could have handle the course work.

  14. 14
    Jo Says:

    I’ve had my eye on the pie for a long time. I much prefer pursuing a degree in area where my passion would excel over what I would get in income. For me it isn’t about the money making me happy as it is what I am doing it and loving it at the same time.

    Astrophysics has long been an area that I’ve wanted to pursue; by starting with a community college for getting the gen. courses out of the way, I’ll also keep cost down. From there I can finish up a B of S and then onto a Masters and then a doctorate.

    Despite the money needing to be made would be with an MBA, I see that as something virtually everyone else is doing as well. Too much competition, too much stress, have to get that report in, that project finished, blah, blah, blah. For those who can accomplish this without your hair turning gray overnight…..I genuinely take my hat off to you.

    As an aside, without trying to be a braggart, I may be just a HS graduate, but because I believe in ongoing self-education, I’ve been able to keep up with the times, technologically speaking. Now, if only I could find a way to live a long time to see the eventual rewards of my work. No, genetics is not something I would be interested in.

  15. 15
    kelly Says:

    I dropped out of college because the job I was working was paying more than the degree was ever going to pay me. I have never made less than 50k and up to 100k. I have friends who drill for oil making 120k no experience necessary. I have friends who are plumbers, work for the railroad and who work in government all making 50 to 100k. No degree needed. At the end of the day it all about the ability to support your family. Why would I ever go in debt for school when there are still jobs out there making good money without a degree.

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