Despite the bloated price of a bachelor’s degree (and the outsized student loans that often accompanies it), a four-year college education remains a great investment for future earnings. The average difference between a high school and college graduate’s wages is $1 million, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce.
Not all majors are created equal, however. Unsurprisingly, degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) business and health fields pay, on average, much higher returns than degrees in education, arts and liberal arts. The Georgetown report, which used U.S. Census data to analyze the earnings of 137 specific majors, illuminates just how dramatic these disparities can be. Over a career, a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering (the highest paying major) brings in $4.8 million, with an average annual income of $136,000. That’s $3.4 million more than a degree in early childhood education (the lowest paying major), which brings in an average of $1.4 million over the course of a career, with an annual income of $39,000.
Those looking for the biggest bang for their buck should consider a degree in engineering. With a single exception, the list of the 10 highest earning majors were all in the field.
Average annual income of the 10 highest-paying majors.
1. Petroleum engineering: $136,000
2. Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration: $113,000
3. Metallurgical engineering: $98,000
4. Mining and mineral engineering: $97,000
5. Chemical engineering: $96,000
6. Electrical engineering: $93,000
7. Aerospace engineering: $90,000
8. Mechanical engineering: $87,000
9. Computer engineering: $87,000
10. Geological and geophysical engineering: $87,000
When it comes to the 10 lowest-paying majors, the list is more diverse. Education, studio arts, community organization and religious vocations are all represented.
Average annual income of the 10 lowest-paying majors.
1. Early childhood education: $39,000
2. Human services and community organization: $41,000
3. Studio arts: $42,000
4. Social work: $42,000
5. Teacher education, multiple levels: $42,000
6. Visual and performing arts: $42,000
7. Theology and religious vocations: $43,000
8. Elementary education: $43,000
9. Drama and theater arts: $ 45,000
10. Family and consumer sciences: $45,000
While a college major is very predictive of future earnings, the take-away is clearly not that everyone should major in engineering.
“Your major has a large effect on your ability to get a job and work your way up a career ladder,” said Anthony Carnevale, the center director and lead author of the report. “But a college major isn’t destiny."
As Entrepreneur’s own editor-in-chief Amy Cosper candidly writes, even the most "impractical” major (in her case, art history) can teach invaluable lessons about how to think and ultimately, how to approach the world.
Beyond the fact that a college major does not necessarily dictate the field a student enters, there exists a wide range in salaries for any major. The top 25 percent of earners who majored in finance, for example, can expect to bring in more than $100,000, roughly twice as much as the 25 percent, who make about $50,000.
A college major matters, but so can ability, talent and passion. Graduates who excel in less lucrative fields can easily earn more than their peers who graduated with a degree in a typically high-paying major. For instance, while, on average, education majors are the lowest earners and engineering majors are the highest, the top 25 percent of education majors outearn the bottom 25 percent of engineering majors.
All of which is to say that while a college major can figure big in a student’s income, it does not necessarily dictate future earnings. “The most lucrative majors are not necessarily the most common,” the report said. “The economic value of majors plays a role in students’ choice of major, but students’ abilities, academic preparation, interests and values are also important.”
There is certainly an argument to be made for better educating college students on the impact their majors can have on future earnings, but this is ultimately how it should be.