How College Major Impacts Lifetime Earnings

According to a report from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce the difference between lifetime career earnings for the lowest paying bachelor’s degree major and the highest paying is about $3.4 million dollars.

The Georgetown report is broken into several supergroups and groups of majors. Supergroups include many different related majors. For example, the STEM supergroup - which includes Science, Technology, Engineering and Math majors – are comprised of subgroups such as chemical engineering, petroleum engineering, management of information systems, physics and so on. Other supergroups include health, business, education and arts and humanities.

Students may want to know what major supergroup earns the most. According to the report, majors within STEM earn the most with an average early career salary of $43,000.

The lowest earning early career salaries are within the teaching, arts and humanities supergroups. These supergroups have an average early career salary of $29,000-30,000.

Although this is a significant difference, graduates within any group do earn more than high school graduates. 

Pick the Major that Makes the Most -- Right?

Okay – so your student will likely want to just pick any major within the STEM supergroup. After all, they earn the most...right? Be sure your student does their research first!

The truth is that earnings potential varies wildly within each supergroup. For example if we look at all of the STEM majors, we can see that petroleum engineers aged 25-59 earn an average salary of $136,000 whereas the lowest paid STEM major – Environmental Engineering - earns $76,000.

And of course, students won't make any of these highly desired salaries if they end up switching majors or even transferring colleges. Either of those actions is common when students begin a major that isn't right for them, and it can add thousands of dollars onto their tuition bill, not to mention several extra years in college.

The talk of numbers and majors may be confusing, but it’s important that you and your student understand the implications of the major they choose. So just how do you pick a major then?

Why Finding Fit is Important

Not everyone can be – or would want to be - a brain surgeon or petroleum engineer! Students should begin their search by identifying their own passions and abilities.

Start by narrowing their choice of major to a supergroup they may be interested in. From there look at majors with an eye towards your student’s interest and their ability.

Do they excel at using computers and have a real passion and interest in them? Have them look into majors within the management of information systems group. Do they love working with children and have a long line of teachers in the family? Explore different teaching options. The main idea here is to come up with a short list of a few top majors your student is interested in. 

Still having an issue or want some help to make sure you’re on the right track? Majors Matcher is a free tool you and your student can use to find their best major match. The tool will help your student find their strengths and interests and see what majors are most compatible with their choices.

Although a large number of students will change major throughout their education, picking the right major from the start can drastically reduce the time and cost it takes to get a degree.