Forget about that counseling career and sign up for some engineering classes - if your priority is a hefty paycheck, that is.
That's the conclusion of a new report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce that uses 2009 census data to correlate earnings to 171 different majors. Petroleum engineers, perched at the high end of the earning scale, can make three to four times the annual salary of early childhood educators or social workers.
None of the categories yielded duds majors, or courses of study where the price of a college degree was simply not justified by the resultant earnings, according to Anthony Carnevale, the director of the center and one of the report's authors.
I thought that when we looked at cost, we'd find a bunch of degrees that aren't worth it and we didn't, Carnevale said. Really the point of the whole work is that degrees matter and majors matter a lot more.
About a quarter of students choose to study business, making it easily the most popular category of major, but their median salaries ranked only slightly above those of social science or physical science majors. Humanities and liberal arts, the quintessential major for those who stress deep thought over a specific skill, fall in the middle part of the earning spectrum. A graduate degree raises salary levels for all fields but the most significant bump was for healthcare and biology studies.
The report also reveals biases embedded in compensation levels, with African Americans earning less than their white counterparts, whites earning less than Asians and women earning less than men. Carnevale said that, despite this grim data, there were a few pieces of good news for women: there are nearly as many women as men studying math and science (despite what some former university presidents may say), and women predominate in biology, a degree which they are more likely than men to translate into healthcare jobs.
Thirty years ago, earnings from different majors were less stratified, Carnevale said. But beginning in the 1980's, automation made some jobs obsolete and increased the value of jobs that required specific skills - skills like those imparted by law, medicine or engineering degrees.
There is a common narrative about what happened to the American economy, and this corresponds to that narrative Carnevale said. More people went to college, so college became the arbiter of economic opportunity more and more.