Degrees of Separation: Your College Major Matters More Than Ever

People with associate's degrees can out-earn bachelor's degree holders, if they pick the right major.

Even though there's plenty of debate nowadays over whether a college degree is worth the money, it's still conventional wisdom that the more education you have, the more money you'll make. But, according to the latest report (PDF) from Geogetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, what major you choose, and the access it gives you to particular occupations, is actually the most powerful factor in lifetime earning potential, trumping degree level.

This latest report backs up a May study, also by Georgetown, that found that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) grads earn more than other majors. Essentially, the petroleum engineer with a B.A. is pulling down a fat median salary of $120,000, while a teacher with a master's degree might not even earn half that amount after 20 years on the job. Teachers who go on to grad school aren't the only ones that will end up outearned by those with just a B.A. Overall, 40 percent bachelor's degree holders end up earning more than people with master's degrees.

On a conference call with reporters, Anthony Carnevale, the center's director, said that 28 percent of people with an associate’s degree actually out-earn those who went on to earn a bachelor's degree because of their choice of major. Given the cost of college, it is pretty hard to swallow that someone with an A.A. degree in a STEM field has the potential to out-earn a humanities B.A. who has paid a pretty penny for those two extra years of school.

Of course, not everyone wants to be a petroleum engineer, and we still need excellent English teachers, counselors, and social workers, even if those fields don't make as much comparatively. So what's a student to do?

Jamie Merisotis, the president of the Lumina Foundation, a higher education philanthropy group that co-sponsored the report, emphasized that the most important thing is to get a post-high school degree, any post-high school degree. "There is a high probability that you’ll be poor without some form of postsecondary education," he said.

Indeed, the average college-educated person will make $2.67 million over her lifetime, compared with $1.3 million for someone with just a high school diploma. That "explodes the myth that a college education is less valuable than it used to be," he said. Merisotis also cautioned against the current emphasis on college-dropout success stories, like that of Mark Zuckerberg. That level of success without some kind of degree is "like getting struck by lighting."

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