Planet Money recently did a story on the most and least lucrative college majors. The results are, for the most part, not surprising (engineers earn much more than artists and counselors). As usual, the Planet Money team did a fantastic job communicating interesting information effectively and efficiently. I came away from this story with three interesting take-aways:
- We all knew already that students who graduate from professional programs will get higher salaries than those who graduate from liberal arts programs. What is striking here is that when you take the top and bottom earnings potentials, the low-earnings majors are not the humanities, but rather professional programs that train students for careers in the arts and in socially-engaged professions.
- What you major in is more important to your future earnings potential than where you get your degree. This means that college applicants and their families can and should stress out less about where they will go to school, but rather celebrate the fact that they are going on for a college degree. Because, whether you major in Petroleum Engineering or Counseling Psychology, it pays to go to college. That the return on investment seems to be higher at a lower-cost public university than a high-cost elite university is worth considering as a counterweight to those ubiquitous college rankings.
- These charts, of course, only calculate financial earnings. Passion and fulfillment are difficult (impossible) to quantify. As the Planet Money reporters (Lisa Chow and Alex Bloomberg) and their fellow non-stratospheric salary earners that they interview attest, there are non-financial benefits to those low-earning majors that make those careers fulfilling. The $110,000 a year petroleum engineer interviewed in this story has very little to say about what she does and why she does it, while the $35,000 a year foster care caseworker explains why he wouldn't trade what he does to earn 3x as much income.