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On path to riches, no sign of fluffy majors

By Peter Whoriskey


This story originally appeared in The Washington Post on May 23, 2011.

An old joke in academia gets at the precarious economics of majoring in the humanities.

The scientist asks, “Why does it work?”

The engineer asks, “How does it work?”

The English major asks, “Would you like fries with that?”

But exactly what an English major makes in a lifetime has never been clear, and some defenders of the humanities have said that their students are endowed with “critical thinking” and other skills that could enable them to catch up to other students in earnings.

Turns out, on average, they were wrong.

Over a lifetime, the earnings of workers who have majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology, according to an analysis by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“I don’t want to slight Shakespeare,” said Anthony Carnevale, one of the report’s authors. “But this study slights Shakespeare.”

The report is based on previously unreported census data that definitively links college majors to career earnings. Earlier studies have looked at salaries immediately after graduation, but the new report covers earnings across a person’s working life and is based on a much larger survey.

The report comes as the recession and escalating college costs have renewed questions about the value of a college degree. During the past two decades, the average amount of debt a student takes on has roughly doubled in real terms, leading more parents and students to focus on the financial returns of their college investments.

According to the study, the median annual earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree in engineering was $75,000. The median wage was $47,000 in the humanities, $44,000 in the arts and $42,000 in education or in psychology.

The individual major with the highest median earnings was petroleum engineering, at $120,000, followed by pharmaceutical sciences at $105,000, and math and computer sciences at $98,000.

The lowest earnings median was for those majoring in counseling or psychology, at $29,000, and early childhood education, at $36,000. Workers with a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature, the most popular major within the humanities, have median earnings of $48,000.

These figures do not include workers who went on to complete advanced degrees, and the study does not investigate the value of such degrees.

In general, the study found that a college degree is a good investment. It showed that a worker with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make 84 percent more in a lifetime than a colleague who has only a high school diploma.

“Education is so off-the-charts expensive now,” said poet and Florida International University professor Campbell McGrath. who noted that his son is considering an anthropology degree. “You are making a really weird decision if you decide to send your kids off to study philosophy. It would be a better world if we all studied the humanities. But it’s not a good dollars-and-cents decision.”