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What are the lowest-paying college majors?

February 22, 2019

Among the many factors which can determine the value of your college degree, such as job satisfaction or personal aptitude, are salary potential and economic return. Although on average college graduates earn over $1 million more than high school graduates during their working lives, the economic risks and returns to Bachelor’s degrees vary considerably depending on the major.

What are the lowest-paying majors?

A review of Census Data by the Center of Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that out of a pool of 137 college majors, the lowest-earning majors were in the fields of arts, education, consumer services, psychology, and social work. The median annual wage for college-educated workers who majored in early childhood education was $39,000, making it the lowest-paying major. Social work, teacher education, and visual and performing arts were also among the top ten lowest-paying majors (median annual wage of $42,000).

Bottom 25 detailed major subgroups ranked by earnings*

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*Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of U.S. Census Bureau

In contrast, STEM, health, and business majors were the highest-paying majors, with average wages of $65,000 or more annually. This helps explain the overwhelming popularity of STEM and business majors, which make up a staggering 46 percent of college graduates.

Top 25 detailed major subgroups ranked by earnings*

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*Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of U.S. Census Bureau

The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, which has published its own report on earnings variation across college majors, sums it up this way: “majors that emphasize quantitative skills tend to have graduates with the highest lifetime earnings… [while] majors that train students to work with children or provide counseling services tend to have graduates with the lowest earnings.”

Differences in earnings within majors

Just as there are differences in earnings across majors, earnings variation exists within majors as well. “[T]he variation of lifetime earnings within any given major is at least as large as the variation across majors,” states Brookings, “For all majors combined, lifetime earnings at the 25th percentile… are $720,000, but they are $1.82 million at the 75th percentile… This is an increase of 154 percent—almost precisely the relative spread at the median from the lowest-earning to the highest-earning major.” Differences in earnings can be found in all majors, but some majors have more earnings variation than others. According to the Center of Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, business majors’ wages vary the most, earning $43,000 annually at the 25th percentile and $98,000 annually at the 75th percentile; in contrast, education majors’ wages vary the least, earning $35,000 and $59,000, respectively.

What causes these differences? Although one’s college major is an important factor in one’s future earnings, it is by no means the only one. Graduates’ wages are also influenced by college performance; the industry they work in; and whether they work in the for-profit, non-profit, or public sector. They may even be influenced by the state the graduate works in (in California, the median annual earning of business graduates is $70,000; in Florida, the number is $54,000).  

Another possible factor is college selectivity. There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which college selectivity leads to higher earnings. Although graduates from top-tier colleges have been shown to out-earn graduates from middle-tier and bottom-tier colleges, researchers have pointed out that this may be due to students’ pre-college characteristics as selective colleges tend to choose students with skills and characteristics which make them already likely to succeed. However, certain demographics, including low-income students, have been shown to benefit from attending a selective college even when researchers control for the quality of entering students. Similarly, researchers Russell W. Rumberger and Scott L. Thomas found college quality—measured by student social composition, faculty resources, and institutional selectivity—to be an important factor on graduates’ earnings, noticing “significant between-school differences in the average earnings of all graduates except engineering.” These factors work alongside one’s choice of college major in determining his or her future earnings.

Interpreting these findings

By now, one might be lead to conclude that some majors are inherently more lucrative than others and that switching from, say, an early childhood education major to a business major will guarantee higher earnings during his or her lifetime. However, one should be careful against such oversimplifications as the variation in earnings across majors may be caused by other factors (Brookings discusses some of these factors in an appendix to its report). For example, earnings variation across majors may result from the different abilities of students choosing the different majors. Students, after all, are not randomly selected into their majors, and studies suggest that high school grades and standardized test scores, especially for math, vary among students who choose different majors. This sorting that occurs across majors may be the cause behind the earnings variation between them.

The Brookings Institution ends its report with the optimistic conclusion that “the higher earnings associated with obtaining a bachelor’s degree, even in low-earning fields in the humanities and education, stand up when accounting for the risks of unemployment and underemployment… Even college graduates who begin their careers in a recession with a relatively low-earning major will still earn more over their lifetimes than individuals with just a high school diploma.” However, students, especially those who are taking out loans to finance their education, should still consider the economic risks and returns to their majors. Although student debt at graduation does not tend to vary much by major, graduates’ debt-to-income ratio (how much of their earnings they need to spend on paying down their student debt) varies significantly by major. Graduates who majored in education or psychology, for example, have debt-to-income ratios that are nearly double those of economics or engineering majors. When choosing their majors, students should consider how their majors could impact their debt burden years after graduation.