Majors and Salaries: the Economic Value of a Major

A new study about the earning power of recent undergraduates was just published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce: “What’s it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors”. The study can be found complete at:  In the wake of such recent books as Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses that question the validity of a college education altogether, this study confirms that college graduates earn 84% more than high school graduates over their lifetimes. The study also indicates that beyond merely going to college, what you major in makes an even bigger difference in eventual earning power. Not the most earthshaking news in the world, but well worth noting by any high school senior preparing to matriculate into a $50,000 a year university.   

According to the Princeton Review, the top 10 undergraduate majors include: Business Administration, Psychology, Nursing, Biology, Education, English, Economics, Communications, Political Science, and Computer Science. Parenthetically, one of the more confusing aspects of any analysis of majors is to figure out what the actual major entails. Business, for example, encompasses business management (8% of all majors), general business (5%), accounting (4%), and finance (3%)…altogether about 21% of undergraduate degrees are in some form of business. In any case, the median salaries for a portion of these majors are: business, $60,000; psychology, $45,000; communications, $50,000; nursing $60,000; elementary education $40,000; and computer science $75,000. The study also covers earnings by ethnicity, employment rates by major, and earnings by gender (and discusses why there is a ‘gender gap.’)  

Undoubtedly, most of us want to work in a profession where the median salary is as high as possible, but that isn’t the only factor driving us. We also need to pay attention to our aptitudes and our interests. Both of these will determine how well we perform in a chosen field. If you’re attempting to gain a sense of what major might be appropriate, there are workshops that can assist you in determining your interests and how they correlate with academic and career pathways.  One, in Newport Beach, is provided by Julie LaCroix, (949) 721-1165, (, a veteran career counselor who offers a Saturday ‘Early College Planning’ seminar (which focuses on selecting a college major) costing a mere $95. Along with enhancing the college planning process, studies show that with this type of planning students are twice as likely to achieve postsecondary success – defined by graduating within 4 years and attaining college-level employment. 

One of the telling points of the Georgetown study is the difference between earnings at 75% and those at 25%. For example, in Petroleum Engineering the difference in compensation between the top 75% ($189,000) and the lower 25% ($83,000) earnings is $107,000. That is a stark difference. It pays to figure out what it is you’re exceptional at and pursue it with your best efforts. 

No matter what information this, or any study, passes along about the earning potential of various professions, it’s also not a bad idea to consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics to get information on the employment outlook of whatever major or profession you’re considering investigating. There are no guarantees about the future, but just getting a sense of what you might expect when you finally go out into the workforce is a useful exercise.

I initially encountered the Georgetown study in the Orange County Register: “Majors and Making Money,” (19 June 2011, Commentary, page 2) by Gary Jason, an instructor at Cal State Fullerton. Mr. Jason treated the study as if it were the Holy Grail for evaluating postsecondary majors and their potential returns. It’s no doubt useful. What you do eventually major in does have a resounding effect on your earnings and employment security.  Major in genetics and you graduate into a profession where 99% are fully employed; in computer science, and 10% are unemployed. None of us may find this report as riveting as Gary Jason does, but it is prudent to attempt to figure out your place in the world: selecting a major is of major importance.