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What's A College Degree Really Worth?

Original post made by Doing College on Oct 17, 2011

Dear Dr. LaScala:

What are the best majors to pursue in terms of job opportunities and earnings? There seems to be much unemployment or underemployment among young people who can't find a job following graduation from college. What's a college degree really worth these days?

Dubious in Danville



Dear Dubious,

It is interesting that you make the distinction between unemployed (no job at all) and underemployed (working fewer hours than you want or perhaps working in a job that is not in your area of interest). Unfortunately, we are seeing a fair share of both across all age groups in the present economy.

The most recent data I found that responds to your question about the 'best' majors comes from a study released from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce by Anthony Carnevale. The study specifies the economic value of particular majors. The investigators used census data and tracked the earnings of graduates in 171 majors. The complete findings are conveniently broken down by undergraduate major and well worth reading.
The study shows that having a bachelor's degree pays off, but some majors are worth far more than others. In addition the payoff is greater for males than for females and earnings are generally higher for whites than for other racial groups. The study is the first of its kind and takes into account the cost of a college education as well as lost earnings while a student pursues a degree. At the high end, engineering and pharmaceutical science majors may enjoy a lifetime advantage of over $1,000,000. At the low end, education majors (predominantly women) witness a benefit equivalent to under $250,000. The study investigated 171 majors, broken down into 15 categories, with breakdowns by race/ethnicity and gender.

As a college and career advisor, I have met a number of unhappily employed individuals. I encourage students to consider earnings associated with a specific major, but also to factor in job satisfaction, opportunities for advancement and/or reentry later in life (after child-bearing, for example), passions, interests and values when choosing a possible career path. It is interesting, for example, that the highest paying undergraduate major, petroleum engineering, was listed among the majors that showed the lowest earnings advantage from getting an advanced degree (Master's or doctoral degree). In contrast, the advanced degree path in healthcare and biology were related to substantially greater earnings. It seems that an advanced degree pays off well for some careers, but not for others, perhaps blocking entry to management positions in certain fields. The point here is that there are many important aspects of a career path to take into account.

What's It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors is available on line at Web Link.

Elizabeth LaScala Ph.D. guides college, transfer and graduate school applicants through the complex world of admissions. She develops best match college lists, offers personalized interview and essay coaching, and tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth helps students from all backgrounds to maximize merit and financial aid awards. Visit www.doingcollege.com; Call (925) 891-4491 or email at elizabeth@doingcollege.com

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