Earnings by Degree: The Best Investment

Sep 01, 2011

On average, individuals holding a bachelor's degree earn 84% more than those with only a high school diploma. A recently released study suggests, however, that in addition to race and gender gaps in earnings for undergraduates, economic returns can vary between majors by more than 300%.

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By Mercy McKee

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Majors Matter

The Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce recently released a new report, What's it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the 2009 American Community Survey (ACS). The report analyzed 171 majors in 15 categories, including earnings, the economic return on graduate degrees and employment rates. Some highlights are below.

Median Earnings by Major

According to the report, the overall median earnings by major were somewhat varied from median earnings by major for men and women. For example, while petroleum engineering is in first place for the highest earnings overall, pharmaceutical science is the top earner for women. Additionally, while the visual and performing arts is the lowest earning major for men, it doesn't even make the top five for overall lowest. The charts below represent the top five highest and lowest earning majors with break outs for gender:

Highest Earning Majors

Top Five Highest Earning Majors - Overall Median Earnings
Petroleum Engineering $120,000
Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration $105,000
Mathematics and Computer Science $98,000
Aerospace Engineering $87,000
Chemical Engineering $86,000

Top Five Highest Earning Majors - Women Median Earnings
Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration $100,000
Information Sciences $75,000
Chemical Engineering $72,000
Computer Science $70,000
Electrical Engineering $70,000

Top Five Highest Earning Majors - Men Median Earnings
Petroleum Engineering $120,000
Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration $110,000
Chemical Engineering $92,000
Aerospace Engineering $90,000
Electrical Engineering $86,000

Lowest Earning Majors

Top Five Lowest Earning Majors - Overall Median Earnings
Counseling Psychology $29,000
Early Childhood Education $36,000
Theology and Religious Vocations $38,000
Human Services and Community Organization $38,000
Social Work $39,000

Top Five Lowest Earning Majors - Women Median Earnings
Theology and Religious Vocations $33,000
Human Services and Community Organization $35,000
Early Childhood Education $36,000
Animal Sciences $36,000
Cosmetology Services and Culinary Arts $36,000

Top Five Lowest Earning Majors - Men Median Earnings
Visual and Performing Arts $36,000
Human Services and Community Organization $40,000
Theology and Religious Vocations $40,000
Drama and Theater Arts $42,000
Social Science or History Teacher Education $44,000

What's a Graduate Degree Worth?

The report also revealed which majors had the biggest boost in income after earning a graduate degree. As the tables below indicate, the increase in earnings is quite significant in some fields (190% for healthcare and medical programs), yet quite minimal in others (just 1% for meteorology).

Top Five Highest Earnings Boost Graduate Degrees Increase
Health and Medical Preparatory Programs 190%
Miscellaneous Social Sciences 134%
Zoology 123%
Molecular Biology 115%
Public Policy 107%

Top Five Lowest Earnings Boost Graduate Degrees Increase
Atmospheric Sciences and Meteorology 1%
Studio Arts 3%
Petroleum Engineering 7%
Oceanography 11%
Mass Media 11%

The Employment Factor

Another element to consider when choosing a major is the rate of employment for that field. The report showed that some fields have 100% employment, while others have an unemployment rate as high as 16%, as demonstrated below.

Top Five Majors with Highest Employment Rate Employment Rate
Geological and Geophysical Engineering 100%
Military Technologies 100%
Pharmacology 100%
School Student Counseling 100%
Medical Assisting Services 99%

Top Five Majors with Highest Unemployment Rate Unemployment Rate
Social Psychology 16%
Nuclear Engineering 11%
Educational Administration and Supervision 11%
Biomedical Engineering 11%
Linguistics and Comparative Language and Literature 10%

Find out what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says about employment in the next decade.

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