The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
What’s Your College Major Worth?

As someone who teaches humanities in an expensive private liberal arts college, I like to keep abreast of the trends in the job market for my students. This useful chart from the Chronicle of Higher Education takes US Census data and breaks out the median income for graduates depending on their major.

As you might expect, some of the tastiest salaries come from the toughest subjects. Petroleum engineering majors earn $120,000. Brown jobs really do rule. Ecology majors on the other hand get a little more than one third of that: $44,000. And remember: that isn’t a starting salary; it’s the median income for all the people in the field up to age 65. Stuffing envelopes for Greenpeace does not often lead to great things.

For math and computer science degrees, you are looking at $98,000.  “Counseling psychology” majors earn $29,000; community organizing majors do somewhat better (though they trail ecologists) at $38,000.

The humanities offer some surprises — and from my point of view, pleasant ones. US History majors do quite well: $57,000. General history, art history and criticism majors do almost as well at $50,000. Majors in “intercultural and international studies” do worse at $44,ooo; even Latin majors do better than that.

Obviously a chart like this doesn’t predict how any particular individual is going to do later in life. But this is the kind of chart parents should be talking about with their high school and college age kids. Many of the students I meet don’t have any idea what kind of income they can hope to earn right after college. They don’t know what it costs to live — to pay rent, pay utility bills, eat, run a car and so on. They don’t know how much money the government takes out of your paycheck (hint, kids: it is more than you think, more maybe than you can conceive), and they have no idea what their monthly student loan repayment bills will look like or how those costs will affect the rest of their budgets.

Many college professors try to give students some ideas about these facts of life, but really this is something best taught by parents. When I was a kid, sex was the subject that parents rarely discussed with their kids, but money was something you had to understand. These days, the subjects seem to have flipped: students are much more likely to come to college with an abundance and perhaps even a surfeit of knowledge about sex. About money on the other hand… not so much.

Money shouldn’t be the only thing you think about when choosing a college major or a career, but neither is it the only thing you should know nothing about and blindly ignore. As parents and students around the country sit around the kitchen table and ponder their college decisions this year, a look at the Chronicle chart might help focus the conversation.

Published on April 21, 2012 7:20 pm
  • Gerald

    The chart or more specific information as to starting salaries, mid-career and late career salaries are all useful information. It is also useful to view the potential of advanced degrees in combination with undergraduate majors. However, it is essential to view this economic data in concert with a young persons aptitude, knowledge and interests. Unfortunately, most recent graduates have only the haziest idea of any of these relevant factors. They have typically been told how wonderful they are, and rewarded for minimal effort. Gaining an engineering, scientific or mathematical degree from a good school is beyond the capacity or interest of a high percentage of high school graduates. Introducing a realistic sense of potential and a close examination of interests is vital in making good choices of schools and majors.

  • Anthony

    College Major and Economic Success: correlation coefficient….

    In line with your ongoing theme of 21st century occupational change WRM, are colleges/universities functionaries of training and adjuncts to furthering trade and commerce? I guess I am pondering what essentially is role of college towards developing matriculating young adults as undergrads – equally recognizing practicable economic need to make living.

    I noticed in Chronicle chart health majors were 105K (obviously chart overlooked blue model transition) while business majors were 75K (perhaps reflecting entrepreneurial disconnect).

  • thibaud

    Err, not to be all smarty-pants and number-crunching about it, but the difference between salaries of US history majors and “community organizers” is less than half the difference between salaries of history majors and CS/Math majors.

    I know that this blog wishes to make every post about the US reinforce the meme that liberalism and liberals are doomed, but the evidence here, as on so many other subjects, makes no such case. It’s simply true now as it has been for over 150 years that advanced industrial society tends to reward engineers far more handsomely than literary and humanist types, whatever their political orientation. CP Snow spoke eloquently about this half a century ago, and no one’s really improved on him since.

    It would be far more helpful to parents and students alike if people of WRM’s wisdom could ponder how both the culture at large, the educational establishment and individual students should strike the right balance between CP Snow’s “two cultures.”

    Ideally, we would give everyone a solid basis in the humanities during high school, as the Germans and French do, but that won’t happen in a country that’s as suspicious of cultural achievement and as diverse, in every sense of the word, as ours.

    Perhaps the best approach is for every student to have two majors, one technical and the other more formally academic and/or “humanitarian.” Every student should be completely numerate, with a good understanding of stats, probability, and basic programming skills, and should also know their Shakespeare, be able to tell Hockney from Huxley or a gene from a chromosome etc.

  • Kenny

    Anthony suggests, “Every [college] student should be completely numerate, with a good understanding of stats, probability, and basic programming skills,..”

    Do that to an objective standard and you could possibly cut the college student population in half …. which makes this an excellent idea.

    A true story: Two`years ago, a statistic prof told me that just he spent 20-minutes in a class ‘Stats for Education Majors’ arguing with a student on a question of probability. The student insisted that the odds of winning the Lotto was 50/50, because the ticket either was a winner or it was a loser — 50/50. The prof could not convince her otherwise.

    Heaven only knows how many other kids like her are gumming up college.

  • bob

    Although I used to teach engineering, I have to agree that college is supposed to be about more than job skills.

    My real concern is student debt, especially because that debt must be repaid, it cannot be discharged (like other debt) by bankruptcy. Also, working and middle class students generally must get relatives to cosign notes, and these relatives generally have limited resources themselves. The accumulation of two or more generations’ wealth is put at risk.

    Colleges have an absolute, mandatory obligation to steer students into programs of study that allow sufficient earnings to pay off debt. They also have an obligation to see to it that students’ debts are limited.

  • http://westernhero.blogspot.com/ Silverfiddle

    I’ve shown such lists to my highschoolers. I want them to chase their dreams, but they must be dreams informed by facts.

    Too many people believe a degree is a magic bullet and find out too late that’s not always the case.

  • http://fpri.org Robert L. Freedman

    A professor of mine said in the mid 1960s that in the old days psychiatrists could not get their patients to talk about sex (which the Freudians thought was the root of their problems) but could easily get them to talk about money. Now, in said in 1965, it is the reverse. The psychiatrists can’t get their patients to talk about money, but can’t get them to stop talking about money. My conclusion: any strong inhibition is troublesome.
    If young people don’t talk about money with their parents, and vice verse if parents don’t talk to their children about money and financial matters, and if students don’t hold paying jobs while in school or during the summer, trouble is brewing. They will be flooded with credit cards allowing instant gratification which, for many, will prove addictive.
    Young people choosing a career is an interesting subject. Of course they should know something about the economics of the careers they are considering, but equally or even more important is matching their aptitudes with a career. Many people enter a career only to find ten years later it is not a good fit for them, and their choices are to suffer in silence or to switch careers and start at the bottom of a different career, neither of which is great.

  • Boritz

    Education majors weren’t mentioned but you can hear teachers forever and always lamenting the low pay of teaching. They spent four or more years getting the credentials they needed to enter the field but didn’t cover this? I guess a lot of people expect to live well working in their chosen field, but work is a compromise. The economy often values something you don’t enjoy more than the things you enjoy. Until the Left finally manages to usher in that worker’s paradise they believe in it will be so.

  • Corlyss

    My first job out of college was with a post-camp-and-station level procurement office in DoD. After a couple of years, I thought about trying to put my BA in International Communications to work. I called up Brookings institution to see what their starting level salaries were. With a MA I could start out at $2,000 less than I was making at the time. Money was everything to me when I was in my 20s. I passed. Sooooooooooo glad I did. I moved up to procurement policy jobs – still in DoD – and was really in my niche. I loved my work, the people I worked with, the crunch of policy rubber meeting the practical field operations road. I tell kids today who seek advice about a future in international relations, with an eye to working at State someday, “Join the military and do what State only thinks it does. You can make a difference in the military; not likely in State.”

  • Mary Zipplestein

    This is not fare. I spent over $100,000 for my degree in comunity orginizing and a miner in Englesh and only can find a job for $29,000 in Detroit. Presdant Obamma should do somethings about this, thas is nat fare !!!!

  • weasel

    Huh. About 12 years in, and I’m in the upper quartile of that chart.

    With no degree. Thanks, DD-214!