College & Workforce Readiness

Report Places Dollar Value on College Majors

By Catherine Gewertz — May 24, 2011 2 min read

Most high school seniors have chosen colleges for next year, and most will enroll with undeclared majors. As weighty as the choice of major can feel as students figure it out, it just got weightier: A new study finds that the major they choose can affect their future income by as much as 314 percent.

Okay, go ahead and point out that we sort of knew that anyway. Even at 21, I didn’t need any wonk to tell me that my bachelor’s degree in political science wouldn’t earn me the bucks that my friend with the bachelor’s in engineering would be pulling down. But still, today’s report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce details the earnings gaps among four-year-college majors in ways that are interesting for us adults, amid a huge national policy push toward college completion, and should be noteworthy for high school students contemplating their choices.

What’s the major with the highest earnings potential? Petroleum engineering, with median earnings of $120,000. Other majors in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields, also tended to carry higher earnings, according to the report. In fact, eight of the 10 majors with the highest earnings potential were in engineering. The major with the lowest earnings potential? Counseling psychology, with median earnings of $29,000.

Another interesting but sadly unsurprising finding: The gender and race segregation in college majors. White men dominate the majors that carry the highest earning potential, like engineering, while women crowd those with modest pay, such as health and education. And even when women, African-Americans or Latinos choose majors with higher earnings, they earn less than their white or Asian counterparts.

The Georgetown report joins a couple of other recent studies on the topic. Just a couple of weeks ago, a study from the American Institutes for Research concluded that those who earn bachelor’s degrees stand to earn at least $230,000 more over their lifetimes—more than twice that if they attend very selective colleges—than those who hold only high school diplomas. Last week, a Pew survey found mixed feelings about whether the hefty cost of a college education turns out to be worth it.

The Georgetown report’s answer to that? A number: 84 percent. That’s how much more, on average, those with bachelor’s degrees earn over a lifetime than those with only high school diplomas.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.