Picking a major could have a bigger influence on students’ future earnings than deciding to go to college in the first place, according to a new study from Georgetown University. Workers with college degrees earn an average of $1 million more than high school graduates over the course of their lifetimes, the study found.
But the gap between the highest- and lowest-paying college majors is wider. The study, released in May through Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, used U.S. Census data to analyze wages for workers from 137 college majors.
College graduates with the highest-paying majors — which are clustered around science, technology, engineering and mathematics — earn an average of $3.4 million more than the lowest-paying majors, which include education, the arts and social work.
“All degrees are not created equal,” Anthony P. Carnevale, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Your major has a large effect on your ability to get a job and work your way up a career ladder.”
But the study also notes that each major offers a wide range of possible incomes. The highest-earning teachers, for instance, earn more money than the lowest-earning engineers.
Dan Brennan hasn’t decided on a major. Psychology and communication are the top contenders right now.
While he’s considering each major’s potential in the job market, the incoming freshman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is focusing on his past experiences and interests.
“I definitely want to make sure I make enough money to live comfortably,” Brennan said. “When it comes down to it I’m pretty positive I’m going to do what makes me happy instead of what makes me money.”
Sixteen of the 25 majors that lead to the highest average wages revolve around engineering. That didn’t surprise Jimmy Nguyen, who graduated in May from Tennessee Tech University with a degree in electrical engineering.
Nguyen, 21, said the skills he honed in engineering classes, from time management to critical thinking, prepared him for jobs across several fields. He had three job offers coming out of college and started work Monday at the Murfreesboro Electric Department
He said a childhood passion led to his decision to pursue engineering in college. Growing up with a single mother in Antioch often meant fixing appliances around the house.
“Ever since I was a little kid I had that inkling of wanting to take things apart and finding out how things work,” he said. The promise of higher wages is “more of a perk than anything.”
Only two majors in the top 25 aren’t STEM-related: economics and business economics.
Andrew R. Hanson, a senior analyst at Georgetown, said the lowest-paying majors identified by the study buck widely held stereotypes.
“Everyone seems to think that liberal arts majors are among the worst-paying majors,” Hanson said. “It’s actually not true.”
Hanson said liberal arts majors probably boost their earnings potential by acquiring skills that could apply to a range of careers.
(Dollar figures represent the median annual incomes for college-educated workers ages 25-59)
• Early childhood education, $39,000
• Human services and community organization, $41,000
• Studio arts, $42,000
• Social work, $42,000
• Teacher education, $42,000
• Petroleum engineering, $136,000
• Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration, $113,000
• Metallurgical engineering, $98,000
• Mining and mineral engineering $97,000
• Chemical engineering, $96,000
Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce