Which Majors Make the Most?

When we choose a major in college we are to some extent choosing a series of future wage rates. The amount of human capital in which we invest is to some extent linked to our college major — different college majors generate different wages.

Many of my students, and often unfortunately too their parents, believe that unless they major in business or engineering they are doomed to lives of poverty.

I just published some research I’ve done on University of Texas graduates. While differences in earnings by college major are huge, once you account for longer hours worked by business and engineering majors, by the fact that they often have higher SAT scores, and other factors, the differences are much smaller; indeed, over half of the variation in earnings by major disappears.

In other words, the amounts of human capital generated in college by different choices of major are not so different from one another as most people believe. Liberal arts majors don’t do that much worse than business majors; and economics majors do as well as business majors do.


Cliff Tuttle, Pittsburgh

Along the lines of the comment about Grant Hill at Duke, I recollect reading in the Alumni Review from the University of North Carolina that Sociology majors had the highest per capita income among all disciplines, due entirely to one multi-billionaire named Michael Jordan.

Ray

to #4 Bryn: the point is that the research does account for the "discrepancy" between one's major and one's career -- that one's college major doesn't determine one's income, what one does with one's major (that is, with their education) is what determines it. So a person who majored in Philosophy but went into the business world (e.g., post #16) demonstrates that "majoring in Philosophy" doesn't force you into a "career" as a Philosopher.. the point of getting an education is to acquire skills and abilities that you can put to good use in life -- like thinking, writing, analyzing, problem-solving, etc. The traditional liberal arts fields are excellent "training" for business, but because everyone seems to believe that college major is "training" for a specific career, it is harder to convince (some) employers that a degree in philosophy is excellent preparation for just about anything. And therefore, harder to convince parents of prospective college students, and the college students themselves... a liberal education is training for jobs and careers that don't exist yet. But then, I'm a dean at a liberal arts college, so what do I know? (-:

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Michael R. Bernstein

Hmm. If you further control for major, can you figure out if your minor affects your income?

Shane Lin

I found this article interesting as a recent UT Austin graduate. However, I found that the amalgamation of all College of Natural Science majors curious, as it encompasses a variety of departments whose practical applicability run from both extremes. The departments of computer science and biology (with a large subset of pre-med students), for instance, I can imagine produce graduates with relatively higher paying jobs than those of departments like physics or astronomy.

In addition, when I attended the school, I believe that all Plan II students took a second major. As multiple majors are relatively uncommon, Plan II and its unique requirements thus cannot then be directly compared to other majors.

Joel

My stereotype was always that business majors tended to be moderately bright but driven to make money. Engineering, for its part, is a complex pursuit but not one that demands much creativity.

Hard sciences like physics, biology, and chemistry require high levels of aptitude and creativity, and I'm sure students that opt for that path score higher than their counterparts in standardized testing. If you normalize the inherent bias that science undergrads are often enrolled in a premedical program, you might find that their earnings don't reflect that aptitude.

Just a hypothesis.

Melancholy Korean

Don't mean to jump into the self-congratulation pool, but this is newsworthy? I remembering being told by a dean in New Haven that in the top five schools, it didn't matter what one majored in.

True dat. I studied ancient Greek and then went to trade derivatives on Wall Street, which is, incidentally, a totally pointless job.

Of course, since one can choose at the right schools without any consequences, I recommend getting a real education. Hint: see what Boris Johnson studied at Oxford. It's the only way to go.

Rebecca

Traciatim- As a female engineer, I am very offended by your assertion that women shy away from complex pursuits. Yes, women are underrepresented in engineering. My experience has been that engineering can still be a boy's club, and many young girls really do encounter great social pressures which discourage their development of technical expertise, but it is certainly not because women don't want to tax their pretty little heads with math and science. And it is degrading to social workers, teachers, nurses and all the other under-paid, over-worked, unappreciated women and men in these professions that our society depends on, to suggest that people go into those careers because they didn't want to deal with complexity. Just because a person chooses a non-technical field does not indicate mental deficiency, and perpetuating such oppressive stereotypes negatively impacts us all, socially and economically.

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Kari

As a UT Graduate (hook em horns), i'm genuinely surprised that the Plan II graduates beat the Hard Business guys.

The Plan II kids were relentlessy mocked and ridiculed for being extreme geeks amongst a generally geeky university.

nancy

as a parent with a worthless college degree, worthless because i never applied myself to a paying job after i had the thing anyway, i was taught to believe that children should have a college degree to make anything of themselves. I pushed all my kids in such direction because they could all get it free. (meritscholarships)

Fact is you raise your kids to be schooled, hard working, and talented. They pick up on the parents hardwork, dedication or non-dedication. You send them out into the world and they become the employ of places that acknowldege their contibutions and sign them to work and dedication with non disclosure agreements. They come home for holidays, or many times not, and what is there to talk about anymore for all this training. How is work? nothing to disclose. Thank goodness we still can talk about food and recipes.

so people my age, mostly who have children still in high school and not three finished with their majors, think twice about believing

"that unless they major in business or engineering they are doomed to lives of poverty"

depends on what you are talking about.

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Traciatim

The one thing that really jumped out in that paper was:

Why the heck the HUGE skewing of females in social work over engineering? Is it because the males go for things they think will be lucrative and females go for things that they think will help the most people like a stereotype would suggest, or is it something else? It seems to me that females seem to shy away from anything complicated . . . maybe someone should do a study on that.

Boris

Something that bothers me here.

I used to teach math at an Ivy League University with a top ranked business school and I can say with some certainty that my best (and smartest) students were certainly not the business or engineering students.

If i had to characterize I would say that the business students cared about their grades more then anyone else. They were very agressive about geting their grades raised and would argue over every point. They would never try to understand what they missed.

The engineers typically understood things better then the business students but cared mostly about being able to calculate (rather then understand the basic idea). That's fine since that's what they need for their field.

The best students were the physics, chemistry and economics majors.

jonathan

Thanks for the post. This research agrees with the limited work into the value of "prestige" college degrees. That is, if you compare kids who got into a "prestige" school but went to a less "prestigious" one with the kids who graduated from the "prestige" school, the earnings were essentially the same. In other words: it's the kid, the person, the ability and the drive in that person, and not the school or the program.

mike

The percentage of females in engineering is shameful. And people wonder why we need to go to India for engineers. We make our bed and we lie in it.

Y L

I wonder if they netted out athletes. I remember a study of Duke grads in the 90s in which Grant Hill skewed the numbers for his major WAY up.

K

This doesn't make any sense. A smart art history major who studies his/her eyeballs out is still going to have a harder time finding a good job than an average CS major.

Bryn

I majored in Geography, which was a small department at my state university. It was so small that the ratio of earnings was very heavily skewed by the addition of one famous sports figure who had graduated from my department about 12 years earlier than me and was making millions of dollars. So my question is this - how do you account for people who majored in one thing and then go on to work in something entirely different? In my own case, I do no geographic work at all, but am instead a computer systems administrator. A large number of my friends and colleagues have similar stories. In all of these cases (except the sports star), we have the jobs we have because we could graduate from college, not because of what we graduated in. How do you account for that type of discrepancy?

Andrew

I agree with DW - there's large self selection here. Would randomly assigning someone with lower abilities and low desire to work who otherwise would have chosen a soft major to a difficult major increase their future income? Maybe a little, through peer effects. But statistically controlling for how hard they work misses the point.

BruceJohnson

samski- I think the idea that science and engineering majors work harder is indeed a generalization but probably a fair one. I was a physics major. On the many Friday nights I spent in the library, my liberal arts major friends were usually out having fun. They probably had more fun in college but I worked much harder. That doesn't mean that there weren't some liberal arts majors at my university who worked as hard as I did, but there probably weren't many of them.

frankenduf

I agree with part of this post in terms of hidden productivity- a friend of mine who's a lawyer put it this way- 'it's not that I'm wealthy, it's that I have two full time $75K jobs'

DW

Is it me, or does this make no sense? Higher salary is not because of major, but because the people in those majors work harder and are smarter? Well, that's why those majors results in higher salaries.

So I guess if you are a smart person that is willing to work hard, and want to make a higher salary, choose one of the business/engr majors. If you're not smart and you don't want to work hard, pick a liberal arts major and you'll make less money.