STEM Majors: Double Your Earnings, Double Your Fun?

Susan Hall

I wrote yesterday about longtime University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska's continuing rant about lack of capacity in the UW computer science program and about two other programs in Washington state that could be eliminated.


He maintains that though great jobs are being created in the state - his seniors have reported starting salaries as high as $105,000 - most will go to students from other states.


Meanwhile, my colleague Don Tennant has been getting into it with readers with his posts about how we could benefit if we emphasized education the way that Asian families do. I've sat for hours at chess tournaments, ours being one of the few Caucasian families there, and seen a very different dynamic in action - and not the harsh Tiger Mom parenting that's gotten so much attention lately.


So it's interesting to see analysis by researchers at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce showing that your college major does matter. We knew that, but not to the degree (OK, that's an unintended pun) mentioned in the analysis. As it turns out, 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, reports The Washington Post.


Says Anthony Carnevale, one of the report's authors:

I don't want to slight Shakespeare, but this study slights Shakespeare.

The article says previous studies looked at salaries straight out of school, while this study looked at lifetime earnings and was a larger survey based on census data. (For new computer science grads, the average starting salary this spring is $63,017, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.)


The study put these figures on median annual earnings by bachelor's degree major:

  • Petroleum engineering, $120,000
  • Pharmaceutical sciences, $105,000
  • Math and computer sciences, $98,000
  • Engineering, $75,000
  • Humanities, $47,000
  • The arts, $44,000
  • Education or psychology, $42,000


The study also found that a graduate with a bachelor's degree can expect to make 84 percent more over a lifetime than a worker with just a high school diploma.


Of course, that's taking the view that earning capacity is the only goal. David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College, warns parents against pushing kids in directions that are not right for them. (And as Don has written, that includes steering kids <em>away</em> from careers in tech, if that's where their interests lie.) Oxtoby points out that those who major in the arts or humanities might not care that much about money.


I still like the advice of scholar/entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa from this post:

My advice to my students - and to my own children - is to study what interests them the most; to excel in fields in which they have the most passion and ability; to change the world in their own way and on their own terms.

A commenter on that post from the Human Resources Professional Group offered this:

A better approach is to focus on interpersonal skills, team building and communication along with specific technologies. Those who will continue to thrive will take a holistic approach to their education. Additionally, all tech students should embrace the philosophy of lifelong learning; seek mentors who are good business people as well as good at technologies; and lastly, focus on what they love.

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