Chart: Lifetime Earnings By Major

 Chart: Lifetime Earnings By Major

Lifetime Earnings By Major


(Click on the chart above to go to the original report or here for a fuller breakdown in pdf)

This chart comes to us from a report by Brad Hershbein and Melissa S. Kearney of the Hamilton project titled “Major Decisions: What Graduates Earn over Their Lifetimes.”  The chart/research lets us know a few key findings that we may find helpful beyond the usual high school vs college earnings averages.

In the paper the authors used census data to further explore the claim that college graduates earn more than high school graduates by breaking down these lifetime earnings by college major. What they found was mostly encouraging for the college goer. While certain majors earn more money than others, the median lifetime earnings of a college graduate outpace the median earnings of high school-only graduates across all of the majors researched . So while early childhood development majors are at the low end of the graduate pay scale and make far less money than chemical engineering majors they still do better overall than their peers who had no college at all.

That said, I’m particularly fascinated by the majors which fall below the median line, especially in that an affordology mindset will save these students the most pain. The authors did not delve into causation for the vast income disparities, though they did posit a few theories that would make for a great college research paper (ahem, ahem). It is true that we do not know why graduates with certain majors earn more or less than others. We simply know that certain majors just do. But all the same if you look at the majors/careers above the solid purple line (overall median) and those below it a few patterns do seem to emerge. Right or wrong you can probably expect to earn less than others with a degree if…

  • …the career involves high human interactions. If you’ll note the low end careers they tend to with communicating with and to the general public while the high earnings majors largely interact more with data. While engineers do arguably need people skills, that interpersonal interaction is not the product. Rather the product is the product and most of your interaction will deal with developing or improving upon something tangible.
  • …the work itself is inherently enjoyable and as a result a lot of amateurs participate in your line of work. It seems to me that if you look at many of the lower paying careers you find a lot of the sort of work people do as a hobby in their spare time. It makes sense that English majors tend to not make much, on the whole, when several thousands of people write books and blogs and newsletters for fun. The aspiring professional  author must contend with the fact that their work will compete with the volumes upon volumes of other works available to the public, many written by amateur hobbyists. When thousands of people pack gyms and fields every day for fun it is hard for the truly professional fitness instructor with a degree to distinguish him or herself from the uneducated muscle head. The same goes for anyone in the arts. On the flip side people much more rarely do the sorts of work employed by the above-the-line majors for mere personal fulfillment.
  • …the career’s product is subjectively “graded.” You’ll note in the world of sports, those activities whose winner must be decided by the fiat of a panel of judges (think figure skating) are far less popular than those whose winner emerges victorious as the result of beating their opponent to an objective standard such as finishing a set distance first or scoring the highest number of baskets in a given time. Likewise, careers seem less valued when it’s a matter of opinion whether someone is good at their craft or merely mediocre. A chemist is considered good if she can concoct a friction-reducing polymer to spec, but opinion varies widely as to what makes a good singer or counselor.
  • …the major leads to careers that have a lot of cross-pollination or low barriers to entry. Pick a major out of the bottom tier and its graduates can probably perform several other of the jobs described in the bottom tier OK. The top tier jobs are much more specialized. Theology majors can flow into marketing or social work with relative ease compared to an actuary that seeks to work in mechanical engineering.
  • …and, lastly, if this degree yields you a bachelor of arts, or B.A. You’ll notice that the bulk of the lower-earning majors net a B.A. while the top tier majors earn a bachelor of science or B.S.

The practical upshot for the affordability-minded student?  If you plan to pursue a relatively low income major it means you have to be relatively more careful about your financial choices about and while in school. You can’t shortcut and make your mental calculations based on the more popular “average college graduate” earnings numbers the popular press likes to print in that these numbers will seem inflated once you hit the workaday world. For instance, a social work major makes just a touch over the typical high school-only earner and so any expected net earnings premium would be nullified by a $200,000 educational experience. Certain majors simply must be much more careful about keeping their out of pocket educational expenses minimal than the “average” or “median” student to make the degree affordable in the end.

NOTE: None of this means you should go chase the dollars and choose your major hoping for more expected earnings, avoid a certain major, or not go to college. Ultimately, I blog all of this in the hopes not that people change their minds about what to do for a living. Quite the opposite, in fact. The value of enjoying your work cannot be overstated and I personally like having philosophers and theologians and servants in my circles. Hopefully the College Affordology project does give its readers the understanding and tools to pursue school in such a way that you eventually have the economic freedom to truly passionately pursue your life’s work whatever that is. Stay tuned for more help to do just this.