While the value of a bachelor's degree has been chronicled in recent studies by the American Institutes for Research and Pew Research Center, a new report released today by The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce looks more closely at the lifetime payoff depending on what you study.
Pick engineering for your major and your lifetime income advantage over solely a high school diploma is about $1.1 million. Go into education and you can expect a boost of about $241,000 with your bachelor's degree. Researchers found as much as a 300 percent difference in earnings potential between one major and another.
"'What's it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors" is based on data from the 2009 American Community Survey in which the Census Bureau asked individuals for the first time about their undergraduate major. The information for 171 majors was collected and divided into 15 categories, with researchers able to analyze earnings across an individual's full life cycle.
"The bottom line is that getting a degree matters, but what you take matters more," Anthony P. Carnevale, the Center's director, said in a press release.
The study also examined differences in earnings by race and gender and found that white men are concentrated to the highest income-earning majors, while women are clustered in the lower-earning majors. There are also clear racial gaps in earnings. For example, even in their highest paid major, electrical engineering, African-Americans earn $22,000 less than whites and $12,000 less than Asians with the same major.
The most popular major group is business, with 25 percent of all students; the least popular are industrial arts and consumer services and agriculture and natural resources, with 1.6 percent each, researchers found.
Here's the breakdown of median earnings by major groups:
1. Engineering, $75,000
2. Computer and mathematics, $70,000
3. Business, $60,000
4. Health, $60,000
5. Physical sciences. $59,000
6. Social sciences, $55,000
7. Agriculture and Natural Resources, $50,000
8. Communication and Journalism, $50,000
9. Industrial Arts and Consumer Services, $50,000
10. Law and Public Policy, $50,000
11.Biology and Life Sciences, $50,000
12. Humanities and Liberal Arts, $47,000
13. Arts, $44,000
14. Education, $42,000
15. Psychology and Social Work, $42,000
The top 10 majors with the highest median annual earnings:
1. Petroleum Engineering, $120,000
2. Pharmacy/pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration, $105,000
3. Mathematics and Computer Sciences, $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. Mining and Mineral Engineering, $80,000
The 10 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 Sciences and Services, $40,000
9. Visual and Performing Arts, $40,000
10. Health and Medical Preparatory Programs, $40,000
Going to graduate school pays off, but it also varies by major. The greatest income benefits come from those who pursue degrees related to healthcare and biology. The lowest payoff in graduate schools is from degrees in atmospheric sciences and meteorology and studio arts.
Looking for a major that nearly guarantees you a job?
The study found there is virtually no unemployment for majors in geological and geophysical engineering, military technologies, pharmacology, and school student counseling.
Majors with the highest unemployment rates: social psychology, nuclear engineering and educational administration and supervision.
See Curriculum Matters for another take on the report.
UPDATE: 2:30 p.m.
In a conference call today, Carnevale said the study findings shouldn't necessarily determine what major a student chooses, but at least they ought to know what to expect from any given field.
"Rates of employment differ by major and if the goal is to be employed, a STEM or business major will make you largely employable in good times and bad - and over a career earn you lots of money," he said. " If you go into education, counseling or softer majors, there are high employment rates, but relatively low earnings. You trade employment security for earnings."
Carnevale acknowledges that the focus on the economic returns by major puts an emphasis - particularly among public sector higher education - on producing degrees that make people employable, although education has value in itself and to the society. "Work - when push comes to shove - is the priority," he said. "My concern in the United States is that people with the ability to pay will get learning for its own sake to participate fully in the culture and people without money will get training."