The report entitled “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors” is an important study that adds to the growing data base on the outcome of a college education. It’s a product of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, and is authored by Anthony Carnevale, Jeff Strohl, and Michelle Melton.
The study collects data from the 2009 American Community Survey, administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, which asked people the usual questions about income etc., but also asked those who earned a bachelor’s degree what they majored in. The result is a breakdown of majors by income. (Respondents had to work full time and be 25 to 64 years of age.)
Nothing surprising showed up. Engineers, computer science, mathematics, and business topped the field, while humanities, arts, education, and psychology/social work came out at the bottom. This survey includes actual salary figures for each field, along with a breakdown of each field into specific majors.
Within the humanities, for instance, U.S. history came out on top at $57K, theology at the bottom at $38K. English was at $48K.
This information increases the pressure on teachers in low-ranking fields when first- and second-year students enter their offices to ask for guidance on their careers. Unless they wish to ignore the practical side of life entirely and highlight the become-a-learned-individual rationale, teachers have an obligation to spell out the relative standing of their fields on the income ladder.
But then, the discouragement runs against the teachers' own interests. Departments in fields that don't bring in outside money need undergraduate enrollments to justify themselves. Without full classrooms, they lose their standing. This was the primary justification SUNY-Albany gave for dispensing with five majors last year.
This is a growing conflict: student interests vs. department interests. I have heard for two deacades now that more and more professors in humanities fields advise students against going to graduate school, mainly because the job market is so bad forPhDs. More and more, however, in certain fields, the discouragement seems to slide down the ladder from graduate school to college. With the price of college going up and the unemployment rate for recent graduates remaining high, the choice of major falls ever more under the shadow of the market. Increasingly, the mind of the 19-year-old matters less than the paycheck.