A College Degree Will Eventually Pay Off, but Choice of Major Can Determine Earnings

A B.A. degree pays off, but certain majors mean greater earnings than others.

May 24, 2011— -- That English major might seem more fun than math or engineering, but it won't pay off nearly as well in the long run, according to a Georgetown University study released today. Researchers compared the average earnings for various fields over a 40-year career and found a 300 percent difference between the average salary of the highest-earning petroleum engineers and the lowest-earning high school guidance counselors.

"Going to college and getting a bachelor's degree is important, but the major that you take is more important than that," Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told ABC News. "If what they are interested in is money, they should go directly to engineering, computer science, the hard sciences or business."

The study found that earning a technical degree by age 35 meant one was more likely to become a manager, and that's when earnings jump.

"You want your child to pursue their dreams, but at some point they've got to wake up and make a living. It's good to know when you're dreaming and when it's real," said Carnevale. "[Parents] ought to sit down with their child and talk about careers. There's a tendency to look on college as getting a degree, and not much attention paid to the value. In the end, there is the real hard issue about the differences in the earnings between these different careers."

For parents who might be questioning whether they or their children should take on huge debt to pay for college, the Georgetown researchers said the debt is worth it, even if the cost of college increases significantly.

"None of the average 40-year careers don't pay back the college expense, plus a few hundred thousand dollars," said Carnevale. "A couple of majors come close to being not worth it, and we were surprised at this, but they are all worth [the cost]. … We know that for a bachelor's degree and better, except for Ph.D.'s who want to work in universities, career-wage returns are still higher than the cost of education."

A college degree is particularly important during a recession, when the jobless rate for high school graduates can double that of college graduates.

"This is judgement day for the B.A., and in the end, they are judged useful," Carnevale told ABC News.

So how do the majors stack up? Here is the list in descending order of earnings -- from highest to lowest. But also read the full report here:


Computers and Mathematics



Physical Sciences

Social Science

Agriculture and Natural Resources

Communications and Journalism

Industrial Arts and Consumer Services

Law and Public Policy

Biology and Life Science

Humanities and Liberal Arts



Psychology and Social Work