More Evidence that College Major Does Matter

Susan Hall
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As the parent of a high school sophomore who has no clue what he wants to be when he grows up and who’s a huge fan of the “Every Major’s Terrible” song, of course I had to send him the link to a report showing that your major does matter.

The U.S. Census Bureau, in a report released Thursday, for the first time studied earnings by degree and occupation, showing the steep gap in lifetime earnings between technical majors and those in the arts, humanities and education, reports

It estimates that over a 40-year career, those with engineering degrees will earn about $3.5 million, while a liberal arts major will earn about $2.1 million and an education major $1.8 million.

The findings are similar to those from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, which found that those who major in engineering, computer science or business will earn in their lifetime as much as 50 percent more than those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology. And they’ll start out making more, too. quotes Robert A. Nakosteen, a professor of business management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, saying:

Universities and colleges are really struggling with this — how much do we try to inform our incoming students about what their choices are going to mean. Lifetime earnings can tell you something pretty dramatic about the major you are in. And you also have to do something that you like.

Actually, the part about doing something you like gets little attention in the article.

Meanwhile, a second Census Bureau report put the median salary for engineering majors (age 25 and up) at about $91,000 annually, the highest of any profession. The median for computer science and mathematics majors ranked second at about $80,000 annually. Business majors’ median income was about $66,000 a year, while liberal arts and history majors earned roughly $59,000 a year.

Across all occupations requiring a college degree, women earned less. The median salary for a male computer programmer or statistician was $84,000, while a woman in the same job earned about $68,000 a year.

D. Anthony Butterfield, a professor of management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, attributed that in part to women’s unwillingness to press for higher salaries — an idea my colleague Don Tennant has challenged.  

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