Just one word of advice for the nation's 2011 high school graduates: petroleum.
An analysis of the projected lifetime earnings of 171 college majors provides a clearer picture of what one bachelor's degree means compared to another in the labor market. And the answer can be as much as $3.64 million.
That's the difference between what petroleum engineering majors can expect to earn over a 40-year career ($4.8 million) and what counseling psychology majors could earn ($1.16 million). Even the lowest-paying major beats the $770,000 average earnings of a person who holds only a high school diploma.
"Getting a (college) degree matters, but what you take matters more," says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, which released its analysis today. It's based on data on undergraduate majors across all age groups, collected for the first time in the Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey and released last year. Estimates were based on 319,081 responses from bachelor's-degree holders who work full time over a full year.
The study is the latest, and most finely detailed yet to demonstrate a financial payoff for college. A study this month by American Institutes for Research found economic returns are greater for people with degrees from highly selective colleges than from less selective schools, but that even those degree holders were likely to earn $230,000 more over a lifetime than a person with no more than a high school education. (It also found that less selective schools generate a "much better bang for the taxpayer buck.") And a Pew Research Center study out last week found that, even after the cost of going to college and the foregone income while in college is considered, an education reaps greater benefits.
White workers and men fare best, the Georgetown study found. Even in their highest paid major, electrical engineering, blacks earn $12,000 less a year on average than Asians and $22,000 less than whites with the same major. Women tend to hold the majority of degrees in many of the lower-paying fields, such as education. Female chemical engineering majors earn on average $20,000 less a year than male counterparts.
•Annual incomes for liberal arts and humanities majors — think English, history, philosophy — averaged $47,000. About 40% of those majors also obtained a graduate degree, which boosted their average earnings almost 50%.
•Four majors among the 10 with the highest average annual earnings also are among the least popular majors, "suggesting there's a real demand in these areas that we have yet to meet," Carnevale says. Those are mathematics and computer science, naval architecture and marine engineering, metallurgical engineering, and mining and mineral engineering
Richard Fry, an economist who crunched lifetime earnings data for the Pew report, cautions that the data can't predict what today's students will make: "The future is inherently unknown."