Majors matter

Film trivia: the movie The Graduate has only one mention of an undergraduate major, and it belongs to the character that is not a graduate.  Mrs. Robinson intended to major in art history, but left college early.  The movie contrasts her unrealized ambitions with the promise of Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), who has just completed an unspecified degree and has only to decide on which of the many roads to opportunity he wants to travel. Simply being the eponymous Graduate is enough to confer considerable potential.

One of the current mantras of education reform is to give students academic skills to be The Graduate, and to have the opportunity to follow any one of several professional paths. And rightly so, for the modern economy is ruthlessly demanding of ever-greater skills and abilities, and many entry-level jobs now require analytical thought and problem solving commensurate with advanced education.  But while more and more students are attending college, the number that major in areas which hold the most future promise are essentially unchanged. We are getting kids into college, but dropping them off without a map.

The value of a college degree is the focus of a recent report from Georgetown University titled “The College Payoff.”  Over the last decade, the earning premium between a high school and bachelor’s degree has widened, so that on average and over a lifetime, a bachelor’s degree is now worth $2.8 million.  But the report also found that there is an increasing emphasis on what someone studies, and which occupation they pursue.

Earnings rise linearly based on educational degree attained, from under a million dollars for high school dropouts (remember, over 39 years of work) all the way up to lifetime earnings of over $3.6 million if one has a professional degree (law, business, medicine):

However, aside from the general boost in earnings from an advanced degree, other factors mattered as well.  Most of these are ones we are born into: age, gender, and ethnicity.  The other two are ones we control and they are related: degree subject and occupation. What the study also found is that the value of advanced degrees can be tampered – or even trumped — by the subject one studies and the type of work one performs.

Compare the lifetime earnings of two groups of workers with bachelor’s degrees: computer software engineers (average of $3.6 million) and managers of retail stores (average of $1.8 million).  Same degree, but half the earnings.  A college degree gets you in the arena, but it is occupation that confers the best seats.  And the key to many occupations is what one studies.

The report continues:

“Earnings today, then, are driven by a combination of educational attainment and occupation. Some occupational clusters pay better than others— for example, the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] occupations earn much more than teachers, regardless of educational attainment.”

So one might expect that students would be flocking to STEM and similar programs, right?  After all, part of the rationale behind the mantra of college prep, particularly among underserved populations, is that this will increase economic prosperity and mobility, and reduce income inequality.

But as the economist Alex Tabarrok pointed out earlier this year, American students are not pursuing degrees in the fields that have the most demand and economic potential.  Tabarrok looks at the change in college majors over the past 25 years, and what he finds is disconcerting:

Over the past 25 years the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has remained more or less constant.

Fifty percent more students, yet the same number majoring in STEM subjects. That’s an astonishing fact.  So what are students studying instead? Well, the number of students majoring in the arts, psychology and communications has more than doubled. And, as the Georgetown study also points out, we have a lot of education majors.

To look at this through the current cultural zeitgeist, here is a blog that lists the majors of the top 1% of earners, based on data from the 2010 American Community Survey. The most common majors among elite earners were neuroscience, economics, public policy (yes, public policy), biochemistry and zoology.  Which college majors are least likely to end up in the 1% pool?  Cosmetology services and culinary arts, teacher education, mechanical engineering related technologies (whatever that is), fine arts and court reporting.  The full table, in excel format, is here.

STEM may be this generation’s version of the “one word: plastics” scene in The Graduate – the advice of an older generation that is utterly meaningless (and perhaps abhorrent) to its descendants. But we increasingly need to make sure students understand that it is not just a college degree, but what that degree is in that determines their professional careers.  We need to not just whisper “plastics”, but to explain that college is only part of the equation. The other part is what you study when you are there. Majors matter.

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One Response to Majors matter

  1. Pingback: Tuition subsidies: A difference of degrees | Ooms With A View

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