If Students Are Career-Oriented, It Doesn’t Show Up in Majors

With all the talk about workplace-readiness in education reform, one would think that students who enter college would look carefully at the coursework that leads to high-paying jobs. That’s the assumption behind the explosion in the undergraduate business majors, which do account for around 22 percent of all undergraduate degrees.

But a report issued recently by PayScale finds many fields doing much better than finance, accounting, and marketing.  PayScale provides a listing of undergraduate college degrees by salary, and it appears here.

What PayScale did was calculate the salaries of people who earned bachelor’s degrees (not professional degrees in medicine, law, etc.) and who were hired full-time and had compiled five years or less of experience. The median person was 25 years old and had two years of experience.

It calculated salaries for people later in their careers, too, and did the same correlation with majors.

If paycheck is first consideration, the course is clear. Seven of the top ten majors were in Engineering, aerospace topping them all, with starting people earning $59,600 and mid-career people earning $109,000. The other three fields in the top ten were Economics ($50,200 and $101,000), Physics ($51,100 and $98,800), and Computer Science ($56,400 and $97,400).

Finance came in at $48,500 and $89,400, Marketing at $41,500 and $81,500, International Business at $41,900 and $77,800, and Business Administration at $42,900 and $73,000.

(Second to last was Elementary Education at $33,000 and $42,500. Education came a bit higher at $36,200 and $54,100.)

Now, this chart doesn’t tell you how hard those jobs were to get. If each engineering job had 500 applicants, and if each marketing job only had 20, then to a canny undergraduate, we might say, the lower marketing salary might have been worth the better odds.

Still, the skew toward engineering and physics and math (statistics came in at #11, math at #13) should lead more kids toward those majors. But on the 2008 American Freshman Survey, when entering students were asked about what they intended to major in, the standard preferences held steady.

Business stood at the top with 16,7% of the respondents. Next came “Professional,” then “Arts and humanities,” then “Social Sciences” (on the PayScale list, social work, sociology, psychology, and anthropology all came up under $40,000).

And Engineering? All the fields from aeronautical to chemical to civil to electrical took in 9.3% of the freshmen, and the entirety of the Physical Sciences garnered only 3.2% (!). That puts only one in eight students headed toward the most prosperous fields. And let’s note, too, that of the percentage of kids who aim for physics et al., a good portion of them likely won’t make the cut after a year of differential equations . . .

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College