Despite the price of a college degree skyrocketing over the past 30 years, recent surveys show that Americans are skeptical of the value of a four-year education. Some public intellectuals and entrepreneurs, meanwhile, share the view that higher education has become an overpriced bubble, ready to pop.
What's been lost in this renewed public scrutiny over the worth of a four-year degree are the radical gaps in future income among college graduates themselves, gaps that track closely to the respective majors. In other words, before we can ask, "Is college worth it?" we have to ask, "What do you plan to study?"
A new study out of Georgetown University led by Anthony Carnevale crunches U.S. Census numbers to highlight the stark differences in lifetime income among college graduates who chose different majors. The study found that a petroleum engineering major will make 300 percent more over his or her lifetime than a peer who majored in counseling psychology.
Here's the study's graph of the top 10 highest-paying majors, which is dominated by the field of engineering:
Here's the researchers' findings on the majors that lead to the lowest earnings:
Despite these gaps, the researchers point out that the average American college student will earn 85 percent more over his or her lifetime than the average high school graduate, which suggests a college degree is well worth the time and money. But as Americans take on more and more debt to graduate college ($24,000 on average), the return on that debt depends in large part on what courses that student took.
Carnevale pointed out on a conference call with reporters that "college majors in America are highly segregated by sex, by race [and] by ethnicity." But even within a specific major, white men out-earn minorities and women. In the graph below, you can see the difference in average income between men and women who graduated with the same degree:
(Graphs from Georgetown University study)
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