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Major Differences: Why Undergraduate Majors Matter


Anthony P. Carnevale and Michelle Melton


In the United States today, there is no more certain investment than a college education. In spite of the current gloomy economic forecast, college is still worth it. In fact, rising demand, coupled with the persistent undersupply of college-educated workers over the last 30 years, has driven up relative wages for these workers. On average, college graduates make 84 percent more over a lifetime than their high school-educated counterparts—up from 75 percent in 1999. While the current unemployment rate among recent college graduates is high (9 percent), it is still far lower than the average unemployment rate for recent high school graduates (35 percent). When it rains long enough and hard enough, everyone gets a little wet. Still, a college education is the best umbrella to shelter individuals from economic storms.
But that doesn’t mean that all bachelor’s degrees are created equal. While the focus recently has been on the value of higher education in general, we have failed to connect the dots between specific college majors and specific career trajectories. College offers many non-financial benefits, but there is new evidence of the oversize influence that certain majors have in preparing students for careers. Average salaries mask very real discrepancies between the economic advantages of different undergraduate majors. While everyone who attends college can expect a significant return on their investment, different undergraduate majors lead to markedly different careers—and significantly different earnings.
Disparity in Degrees
As we found in our recent study, What’s It Worth?: The Economic Value of College Majors, because of the role it plays in occupational training, the choice of undergraduate major is as critical a choice as whether to get a college degree at all. In one of the most extreme examples, for instance, Counseling Psychology majors make an average of $29,000 per year, compared to $120,000 for Petroleum Engineering majors. That’s a difference of 314 percent—or $4.1 million over a 45-year lifetime of work. A more typical example is the difference between two of the most popular majors, General Business and Elementary Education. A General Business major earns $60,000 annually, compared with $40,000 for an Education major. Over a lifetime, that’s a difference in earnings of about $900,000.
Majors are so decisive for an individual’s earnings because they are not just educational categories; majors are an essential component of career training. Critics constantly disparage higher education for not being more connected with the ‘real world,’ and for failing to more tightly align higher education and curricula with labor markets. Such criticism is off the mark; since the end of the Second World War, the growth in higher education has been in programs that connect learning with careers. Very few people today actually major in Ancient Greek, and you won’t see any subway advertisements promoting class offerings in Classics. Fewer than 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. economy are in Humanities and Liberal Arts. The growth areas of higher education have been, and will continue to be, in educational programs which stress career training. The for-profit sector has recognized this fact, and has profited handsomely from it. All of higher education would benefit from making the implicit relationships between education and careers more explicit.
The point is a simple one: while it is important to discuss the benefits of college in general, for too long we have treated all college degrees as though they had the same economic value. We have glossed over the differences between workers with a major in Mathematics and workers with a major in Drama and Theater Arts to the detriment of students. The plain truth is that the labor market does not treat these workers the same—and students deserve to know that. A love of Shakespeare should not deter students from becoming English majors. But we believe that students should know how their educational choices will affect the rest of their adult lives, in terms of the careers they will have, their expected earnings, and whether they are likely to need graduate education—which they may need to take out loans to get.
We found that, for example, a Nursing major nearly always leads to a career in the Health Services industry, as do many other health preparatory majors (82 percent of Nursing majors end up in Health Professional occupations, and 6 percent are in management). Likewise, well over two-thirds of Education majors—especially Special Needs Education, Elementary Education, and Educational Administration and Supervision majors—end up in the Education Services industry.
Making the Arts Pay
That these particular majors lead to specific careers may be obvious—but what about Arts majors? Do most people who major in Arts actually become artists? In fact, only a quarter of Arts majors end up in Arts occupations, while about a third end up in either Office, Sales, or Education occupations. In other words, majoring in Arts only rarely leads to a career as an artist. Potential Arts majors should know this, and that they can expect median annual earnings of $44,000.

Of course, some Arts majors will end up going on to get a graduate degree (in fact, less than a quarter of Arts majors, 23 percent, do get a graduate degree). But Arts majors who get a graduate degree see a 23 percent boost in earnings.
Although it is slightly more remunerative than Arts, Humanities and Liberal Arts majors are in the middle of the pack in terms of earnings ($47,000) and graduate degree attainment (41 percent of Humanities and Liberal Arts majors go to graduate school). Humanities and Liberal Arts majors that do go on to graduate school see a 48 percent earnings boost for doing so, making their median earnings $65,000 per year. This is a comfortable living, to be sure, but even with a graduate degree, Humanities and Liberal Arts majors still make significantly less than an Engineering major with a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, in terms of all graduate earnings, Humanities and Liberal Arts majors are still in the middle of the pack. They earn more than the Arts majors do, but significantly less than many other major groups with a graduate degree, including Engineering, Health, Social Sciences, and Agriculture and Natural Resources.
In short, the Humanities and Liberal Arts may have unlimited intrinsic value, but in terms of their more measurable market value, these graduates simply do not fare as well as students whose majors equip them with more technical and scientific skills.
The point is not for students to slavishly choose the majors with the highest earnings, instead of being driven by their interests. It is to provide the information to students so that they are not solely driven by incomplete, anecdotal, or speculative evidence about their likely success, and to balance their interests—both economic and humanistic—in making a decision about their working lives.

Given information, students might make different decisions. We already know that such decisions are complex and based on a combination of interests, values, knowledge, skills, and abilities. If a Social Work major is motivated by the desire to interact with and help others, he or she might decide that, compared with $39,000 in Social Work, Nursing (at $60,000) might be a better option that would also allow him or her to pursue interacting with and helping others. The same might be true of a Biology major ($50,000), to whom Nursing might be an appealing alternative path. Similarly, an English major ($48,000) might decide that the small boost from majoring in Journalism ($51,000) isn’t worth the switch.

We have been embarrassingly slow to provide students with information that will help them make these decisions. For the most part, this is because higher education is balancing competing—and often contradictory—missions. Many educators are wary about subjugating higher education’s traditional role to an economic one. Some are upset about the increasingly tight ties that bind work and education. While training foot soldiers for capitalism is not the sole mission of our education system, the inescapable reality is that ours is a society based on work. Those who are not equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to get—and keep—good jobs are denied full social inclusion and tend to drop out of the mainstream culture, polity, and economy. In the worst cases, they can be drawn into alternative cultures, political movements, and economic activities that are a threat to mainstream American life. Therefore, if postsecondary educators cannot fulfill their economic mission to help students become successful workers and to better link postsecondary education with careers, they also will fail in their cultural and political missions to create good neighbors and good citizens.
Anthony P. Carnevale is the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Michelle Melton is a research associate at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.