The highest-paying majors... and why that list shouldn't matter

Professor says asking 18-year-olds to choose a field of study is 'irrational'

A study determining the highest- and lowest-paying majors was released this week, but salaries are not what students should base their field of study decision on, Jeffrey Selingo argues in the Washington Post's "Grade Point" blog.

The Arizona State University professor calls the pressure for 18-year-olds to choose a major "irrational," citing that fact that 25% of freshmen switch their majors and 50% say they plan to. Instead, students should be encouraged to explore what interests them in their first year on campus. "There's no need to rush the decision," he says.

"Too many decisions about majors these days are driven by the expected return on investment after graduation," Selingo says.

The author of the new study out of Georgetown University's Center on Education and Workforce echoed the sentiment.

"Your major has a large effect on your ability to get a job and work your way up the career ladder, but a college major isn't destiny," Anthony Carnevale says. In the report he elaborates that "Students' abilities, academic preparation, interests, and values are also important."

For the study, researchers examined U.S. Census data for around 137 majors and found that four out of five students major in "career-focused" areas and 23 of the 25 highest-paying majors are STEM-related.

The highest-earning majors in terms of average annual income were:

  1. Petroleum engineering, $136,000
  2. Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration, $113,000
  3. Metallurgical engineering, $98,000
  4. Mining and mineral engineering, $97,000
  5. Chemical engineering, $96,000

The lowest were:

  1. Early childhood education, $39,000
  2. Human services and community organization, $41,000
  3. Studio arts, $42,000
  4. Social work, $42,000
  5. Teacher education, multiple levels, $42,000

However, even within each major, expected earnings can vary greatly. The 25% highest-earning finance majors make about twice as much as the lowest-earning 25%.

In research for a book on the college-to-workforce transition, Selingo says he found employers rarely care about applicants' majors.

"We're looking for a specific skill set that doesn't come from any particular major," says Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO, which receives 20,000 applications for 150 openings each year. He says he only pays attention to what individuals studied when they combined unusual fields, such as architecture and history.

"Colleges like majors because it's an efficient way to organize their faculty members by departments. But that doesn't mean we need to organize students in the same way," he says. Last year, a study at Stanford University found students should instead declare a "mission" and then take classes to help them follow it (Entis, Entrepreneur, 5/7; Selingo, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 5/7).

The takeaway: Students should not focus on the list of highest-paying majors when choosing a field of study, Jeffery Selingo writes in the Washington Post's "Grade Point" blog.

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