Maureen Downey: A major is not minor

Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys or counselors — if you want them to eat and pay their bills.

A new study on how a person’s college major impacts earnings found that an undergraduate degree in counseling psychology offers the least financial return.

Using never-before-available U.S. Census data linking earnings to college majors, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce was able to show what the market values — and it isn’t the helping professions.

“The people who make the most money are the most productive, although not the most socially productive,” said center director Anthony P. Carnevale. “People who help people make the least money.”

The study, “What’s it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” examines earnings of full-time workers. The Census information enabled researchers to look beyond the earnings of recent undergraduate degree recipients to an individual’s full life cycle.

“We found a [yearly] range from a high earnings capacity of $120,000 in petroleum engineering to a low in earnings of $29,000 in counseling psychology,” Carnevale said.

“That is a difference of more than 300 percent. Over a lifetime, we are talking about almost $5 million in earnings for the petroleum engineer to something that looks like $2 million for the people who become counselors and who don’t go on to graduate school,” he said.

In good news for Georgia Tech students, Carnevale said, “The engineering degree will be dominant at every level. You will beat out even people with graduate degrees in education.”

Overall, the study reinforces the benefits of a college degree. Across their lifetimes, full-time, full-year workers with a bachelor’s degree will earn 84 percent more money than counterparts with high school diplomas.

While rising college enrollments suggest Americans now understand the value of a degree, they may not realize the economic consequences of choosing an academic major.

(I can’t be too hard on my oldest son for majoring in philosophy. According to the study, a philosophy major has about the same earning potential today as journalism. Which means that neither of us ought to develop expensive tastes since the median income for both is $50,000. )

The study revealed a few majors for which there seem to be no danger of unemployment. They are geological and geophysical engineering, military technologies, pharmacology and student counseling.

On the other end, the majors with the highest unemployment rates are social psychology, nuclear engineering, and educational administration and supervision.

The highest-earning majors are engineering, math and science. Business economics and health majors also fare well.

The bottom earners are counseling psychology, early childhood education, theology and religious vocations, human services and community organization, social work, drama and theater arts — occupations dominated by women.

In general, women earn less than men but are making inroads in certain majors.

“Women have found a route to higher earnings through health care, math and statistics that wasn’t there 20 years ago,” Carnevale said.

One reason that women with STEM degrees still earn less than men is because they are more likely to end up teaching.

“Women don’t get as much bang for their major as men do,” Carnevale said. “Men tend to translate math into engineering or computer sciences. While women have done better and better at school, they have less luck translating school into higher-paying jobs.”

But the study pointed to some inexplicable gaps in the earnings of women and minorities.

In their highest-paid major, electrical engineering, African-Americans still earn $22,000 less than whites and $12,000 less than Asians.

Even after scrubbing out differences that might account for salary gaps, Carnevale said there was “unexplained residual.”

The Georgetown study comes at the heels of a Pew Research Center survey in which 48 percent of Americans said they graduated college with so much debt that they struggle now to pay other bills.

While Carnevale said he doesn’t want undergraduates to use the earnings charts to necessarily choose their college major, “they at least ought to know.”

He also suspects the information will lead to public policy questions, including “Should we pay for people taking courses that don’t get them jobs?” and “Should we pay for courses that when people go out in labor market they don’t make enough money to pay back their loans?”

“If you go to Georgetown and want to take philosophy and you can’t get a job, that is your business because Georgetown is a private institution,” Carnevale said.

“But if you are going to a public institution, then it is another matter because you are using public money,” he said.

The priority of the public sector is making people employable, he said. “Bottom line is that in the American system, we don’t make you vote. We do make you work. If you don’t work, you have to get a pretty good excuse to get money out of the rest of us.”

But what about the arts? Would we produce a Shakespeare or a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. if we allotted education to students by earning power?

“People with the ability to pay will get learning for its own sake that will allow them to participate in our cultural and political systems,” he said. “People who don’t have money in their pocket are going to get training.”

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