What’s the Economic Value of a College Major?

It’s difficult to place a numeric value on a college major. After all, how do you put a dollar amount on intangibles such as job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, or work environment?

But there are some hard, cold numbers available. While they might present only one dimension of life after graduation, that aspect – financial security – can weigh in on major life decisions. Financial security can be the deciding factor on when to get married, whether to start a family (or not), or the feasibility of earning an advanced degree.

Taking your future self and career into consideration, the investment of “return of tuition” is part of declaring a hire-friendly major and preparing for life outside of the classroom.

Where’s the Money?

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that business majors are almost always among the highest earners. But those who major in fields related to health also tend to do well. Those who gravitate towards STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) usually make a comfortable living, too. These graduates tend to earn $37,000 fresh off campus. As they age alongside their more artistic classmates, they typically land $65,000 more per year than their peers who majored in liberal arts.

Speaking of the liberal arts, this is usually where the money is not. The liberal arts might be necessary to the advancement of civilization, but civilization isn’t shelling out for it. The lowest earners are in the fine arts, early education, religious studies, and community service.

If this doesn’t seem fair, consider that the market balances itself. Jobs which tend to demand specialized skills, which are rather unexciting to most,will provide the highest job security. No four-year-old declares that he wants to be an actuary when he grows up, but that’s one of the highest-paying jobs in the United States on a consistent basis. Why? Because no four-year-old declares he wants to be one.

Job Security & Income Potential

On the other hand, a whole lot of people want to be actors, astronauts, and ballroom dancers – far more than there are job slots to go around. These careers are exciting, dynamic, and generally prized in pop culture. A tiny percentage of people who do this work can indeed land in the top 1% of income earners. They also encompass the kind of work that people enjoy, and involve expressing creativity, becoming famous, never setting foot in an office, and all other sorts of pleasant benefits.

However, these careers are also extremely high-risk. And since the job is so good, there are always plenty of people vying to win this career lottery. But those left behind usually struggle in part-time auxiliary jobs, such as working in museums or teaching in cheerleading studios. People who concentrate on career stability will almost always have a job, but that job might not be particularly high-paying – or enjoyable.

Other careers are inherently low-earning. People might pour free verse into their journals after getting dumped, but they’re generally not attending poetry readings or buying new books of poems. Many say they like to give back to the community, but life as a social worker means constant contact with people who don’t have a lot of money to give in exchange for help. That’s not the same case with people who work in banking or stocks.

Who Can Do the Job?

In most cases, the highest paying jobs go to those who have taken the time and trouble to learn certain skills – and take courses in professional training or re-certification to maintain them. Not everyone knows what to do to stabilize low blood pressure or how to prepare a polio vaccine. Since this kind of work requires intensive training, students who enter these degree fields tend to leave them with job offers. Sometimes, a host of factors converge to make for a very attractive degree field indeed.

This is especially the case in the red-hot healthcare field, for example, which is currently paying about $65,000 on average and is projected to grow at least eighteen percent between now and 2026. In addition, the technological revolution means that this field is expanding and changing – such as the branch of radiology, which didn’t even exist until the ability to take x-rays was developed. Healthcare is also the stable sort of career in which personnel will always be necessary: We won’t always need someone to repair our VCR, but a doctor will always have a job.

Finally, the healthcare field is having a generational moment in which the population of the Western world is top-heavy. Baby boomers and the silent generation are aging, and geriatric services are in need. This reality is growing more apparent every year. At the same time, not enough millennials are becoming cardiovascular technologists or occupational specialists to care for them. It’s a worker’s market.

But even in the healthcare field, a tuition investment pays off. Jobs which do not require a college degree, such as in medical transcription and personal caretaking, pay salaries equivalent to other non-degree fields.

Sometimes career trends don’t always hold. For example, the highest paying major right now is petroleum engineering, as oil pipelines and fracking technology boom in the United States, thanks to the current political culture. Whether that will still be the case in fifteen years remains to be seen.

What About Advanced Degrees?

When deciding whether to make the extra investment in an advanced degree, look at your undergraduate field. Some majors lend themselves to decent pay only beyond a Bachelor’s degree – for example, education and psychology. Others are variable, since they are not in high demand but can be leveraged for higher salaries; this is often the case with those who hold an MBA. And in still other fields, an advanced degree is a route to a far higher salary, as in healthcare administration or technology.

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