Report Proves the Value of a College Education and Highlights the Best Majors

To all students questioning the value of your college degree, rest assured. It is projected that a college degree will reward you with a salary double the one a high school degree will get you. Those wondering about the value of a chosen major, though, have something to think about.

Last month, The Hamilton Project, a think-tank, published a comprehensive report outlining the economic rewards of 80 majors titled “Major Decisions: What Graduates Earn Over Their Lifetimes.” The report seeks to create innovative policy proposals in an effort to better the economy for more people.

According to the report, quantitative skills learned in physics, engineering, or computer science majors are the most lucrative. Chemical engineering majors have median lifetime earnings of about $2.1 million, with other engineering majors following close behind.

Median lifetime earnings for finance, economics, and health-related majors are all above the average, which is nearly $1.2 million. At the low end of the spectrum, humanities majors, including education and fine arts, earn more than $500,000 in a lifetime.

The Hamilton Project previously estimated the cost of an undergraduate degree to be $102,000. Included in this number was tuition and fees, room and board, and the average salary a 20 or 21 year-old could have made, which annually averages to $15,400.

A calculation of the cost of a Queens College undergraduate degree shows that the cost is significantly lower than average at an estimated $40,520 for four years. QC, which was rated second in “America’s Best-Bang-for-the-Buck Colleges” by Washington Monthly, is surely an example of paying less for a college degree.

Many students opt to major in the humanities, even though such majors are on the bottom rung of the median lifetime earnings. A general liberal arts graduate will make only half of an engineer’s salary.

Mimi Nissan, a junior, loves her two majors, political science and English, and chose them because of her passion as well as the flexibility that they offer. However, she realizes that there is a large pay range between both majors.

“If I go into law, that’s profitable, but if I become a teacher, then no,” Nissan said.

Similarly, Alina Levine, a math major, recognizes the wide variety of potential careers that her major allows for. She is considering becoming either a biostatistian, which has a low median salary, or an actuary, which pays rather well.

“I do not think majoring in math is an indicator of a salary because there are so many options for jobs, and the pay range is so large,” Levine said.

Queens College sophomore Marilyn Moy, says,  “I didn’t really know what I wanted” but chose a major by “exploring different types of classes.”

She chose psychology, the most popular major at QC, because she found it interesting.  Moy is not worried that a psychology major is on the bottom tier of projected incomes, as she intends to earn a graduate degree perhaps in an unrelated field.

Talya Adler was also drawn into the psychology major because it was interesting. But she later switched to a major in graphic design and a minor in business because she was thinking about her future salary and thought that this was a better option. Still, Talya is glad to be pursuing a major that she says “interests me and will make money.”

“This way, hopefully, I have options [and] they are all applicable to potential career paths,” Adler said.

It is admittedly difficult for students to choose majors based on uncertain career plans, and many will switch majors at least once throughout college. However, as the report noted, it is the value of education itself that provides opportunity for graduates.

“The good news is that no matter what their major, [graduates] are likely to earn more over their careers than those with less education,” the report said.

An interactive info graphic from the Hamilton Project.

*A version of this article appeared in The Knight News on October 22, 2014 (Volume 21, Issue 2).

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