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Earnings Linked Closely to Field of Study in College, Report Shows

High school seniors obsessed with where to apply to college should pay attention to a report released today that emphasizes the importance of what they study over where they go.

The research by College Measures, a joint venture of the American Institutes for Research and the Matrix Knowledge Group, shows the wide range of salaries that college graduates earn and finds incomes are more closely tied to career choice than the institutions from which students graduate.

Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than Others looks at the outcomes of students from five states (Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) to give a snapshot of earning potential and how it relates to college choices.

Across all three levels of degrees (associate, bachelor's and master's), those in technical fields yield far greater returns than degrees in liberal arts.

Researchers found that students with bachelor's degrees music, philosophy, photography, and other liberal arts earned the least after graduation, while engineering majors earned the most. Graduates with degrees in health-related fields also had high incomes, followed by business graduates.

The high and low ends of first-year earnings among graduates in the five states were separated by at least $18,000.

While STEM career paths are being pushed heavily, the report discovers great variation in the payoff within those fields. Employers are paying far more for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering, and mathematics than science. Evidence shows that graduates with degrees in biology often earn less than English majors. Graduates in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but do not command the wage premium of those who studied engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics.

The report says the findings underscore that there are many successful paths into the labor market aside from graduating from the most prestigious schools.

Although a four-year degree often has the biggest payoff, choosing a specific career track, particularly in health care or construction, at a community college can lead to competitive jobs with good incomes, according to the report.

In a footnote, researchers mention that this study does not include Ivy League or other elite private schools, which represent a small fraction of degree students in the country. Graduates of these schools tend to do better in the labor market than other graduates, although this may be a function of selective admission processes rather than the quality of education they receive. For more on rates of return for elite schools, see How Much Is That Bachelor's Degree Really Worth? The Million Dollar Misunderstanding by Mark Schneider.

The new report concludes that improved transparency in higher education outcomes is essential.

"Students and their parents and government representatives must insist that objective information about potential first-year earnings be placed at the fingertips of every college-bound student," the report says. "Until the data about potential earnings among graduates across the nation is unearthed and put to full use, many students will make poor decisions about schools and programs—decisions that will leave them saddled with debt and clamoring for a government bailout."

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