The Economic Worth of College Majors

Penn Office of Admissions

Something that should be attended to as a part of college planning is the student’s choice of major. I disagree that students should feel pressure to make a firm decision before matriculating, but the process should at least be launched in terms of exploration and consideration. There’s a great piece by Jacques Steinberg (author of a fine book on elite college admissions, The Gatekeepers) in the NY Times “The Choice” blog on May 24, 2011, about the relative value of the range of college majors. Referencing a new report by Georgetown University, Steinberg shares the good news, which is that college degrees more than pay for themselves over time, and position bachelors degree holders well ahead of those with high school diplomas in terms of future earnings.

It’s no surprise that some degrees pay off far more than others. At the top of the range for what BA/BS degree holders can command in salary are petroleum engineers and pharmacists. At the bottom are holders of degrees in psychology, early childhood education, and theology.

This information matches what I’ve been saying to students for some time. You should study what you love and what you are suited for (certainly not all are suited to be petroleum engineers!); however, some degrees will require more forethought and initiative on the part of the student than others to lead to a good-paying job. Psych majors (especially counseling psych) will command higher salaries if the student goes on to grad school and achieves a higher-level credential. The pursuit of internships can add greatly to the value of all degrees. Others who wish to major in broad liberal arts subjects (such as philosophy or art) would be well advised to select a more hard-nosed minor that confers a more concrete knowledge base, such as accounting, or computer information systems. Acquiring a pragmatic skill set, whether in the form of a minor or grouping of courses, such as foreign language study, can also add a lot of clout to a degree.

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