Choice of Major Critical for Future Earnings, Says Report

Last Updated May 25, 2011 5:36 AM EDT

How to choose a college majorWith graduation time upon is, the media is flooded with wisdom for grads, reports on their job prospects and advice on choosing a career. Now the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce is adding to the long list of information students have to chew on with a report detailing the economic rewards of different undergraduate college majors. Crunching fresh census data, the report demonstrates,
just how critical the choice of major is to a student's median earnings. While there is a lot of variation in earnings over a lifetime, the authors find that all undergraduate majors are "worth it,‟ even taking into account the cost of college and lost earnings. However, the lifetime advantage ranges from $1,090,000 for engineering majors to $241,000 for education majors. "The bottom line is that getting a degree matters, but what you take matters more," said Anthony P. Carnevale, the Center's director.
So which majors had the biggest pay off? The top earners are:
  • Petroleum Engineer ($120,000)
  • Pharmacy/pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration ($105,000)
  • Mathematics and Computer Sciences ($98,000)
  • Aerospace Engineering ($87,000)
  • Chemical Engineering ($86,000)
  • Electrical Engineering ($85,000)
  • Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering ($82,000)
  • Mechanical Engineering, Metallurgical Engineering and Mining and Mineral Engineering (each with median earnings of $80,000).
On the bottom of the list were these majors with the lowest median earnings:
  • Counseling/Psychology ($29,000)
  • Early Childhood Education ($36,000)
  • Theology and Religious Vocations ($38,000)
  • Human Services and Community Organizations ($38,000)
  • Social Work ($39,000)
  • Drama and Theater Arts, Studio Arts, Communication Disorders Sciences and Services, Visual and Performing Arts, and Health and Medical Preparatory Programs (each at $40,000).
Math, it seems, still pays. The lack of humanities majors at the top of the high earners list is sparking debate about their value. "I don't want to slight Shakespeare," Carnevale told the Washington Post, "but this study slights Shakespeare." But despite the report's unequivocal findings about the average dollars and cents value of the liberal arts, some educators are leaping to their defense. Liberal education, Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities told the Post, "is the most powerful form of learning we offer in this country, and even today, Asian universities and Middle Eastern leaders are trying to import it."

Interested parties may be debating whether students should choose a major based on economics or personal development and passion in the Post article, but the Atlantic looks at the report and suggests both sides simmer down -- students are perfectly capable of weighing multiple factors when making a decision about what to study and will only benefit from more information.

Choosing a school will never be as easy as choosing a digital camera. And it shouldn't be. But if we force schools to make their specs as transparent as a Best Buy product, students might make better decisions about where to go, how long to stay, and what to study. The purpose of all this schooling, after all, is not strictly to maximize net graduate earnings, but to give each student the sort of education that maximizes her own definition of success and achievement.
I agree with the Atlantic on this one. How about you?

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.