What A College Major Is Really Worth

Originally published on June 6, 2011 12:03 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, it's cap and gown season. We talk about how to inspire students with a commencement address that resonates during these difficult times. But, first, the kids fortunate enough to have had the opportunity for higher education are preparing to graduate and are probably getting used to hearing the question, what are you planning to do with that degree?

That question is a pivotal one even as the Obama administration is pushing the value of higher education, others are questioning the real value of attending college. In part because of skyrocketing costs and a stagnant job market. Job numbers just out Friday show the unemployment rate nationally is up to 9.1 percent. It's been particularly tough on younger workers since May of 2007. According to the Labor Department, the percentage of the population under age 25 who are currently employed has dropped more than seven percentage points to 45.1 percent.

We put a call out on Facebook to ask recent graduates about their majors and how they're doing now. We got an overwhelming response. More than 4,000 people commented, wanting to share their stories and many are struggling.

MICHELLE KURTWRIGHT: My name is Michelle Kurtwright(ph), and I live in Eldon, Missouri. I graduated from the University of Central Missouri in May 2010 with a BFA in English. I'm a high school teacher at a low income district and I make less per year than all of my family members who didn't even go to college.

ELIZABETH CARTMAN: My name is Elizabeth Cartman and I graduated from UCLA in 2007 with a degree in fine art which is really practical, I know. I'm living in Sacramento right now and I work four days a week as a waitress at a fish restaurant. I barely make enough money to pay my rent, gas my car and utilities. It was - my parents sort of had the approach, you go to college, you study what you want, what you love and your life will just come together and it will be magical. And it's not.

MARTIN: Now there's a new report out that shows for the first time the link between specific college majors and long-term career earnings. The report, which is based on previously unreported census data is called "What's it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors." Anthony P. Carnevale is the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which put out the report. And he's with us now from the studios on the campus of the University of Virginia. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

ANTHONY P. CARNEVALE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I'm trying to decide if I'm surprised that this report exists at all, or that it didn't exist before now. So, what gave you the idea for this report?

CARNEVALE: We've been under continuing pressure, because college has become the ticket to the middle class in the United States. And parents feel they need to send their kids to college. And so, they and the people who pay for college, that is, the government as well as the parents, want to know what different college degrees are worth.

It is an investment that now is topping four and $500 billion. And it's one that the government no longer feels it can afford to make. And so more and more of the cost is falling on the students and their parents. And they're concerned that they get their money's worth and that they will be able to get jobs that'll allow them to pay back their loans and make the cost worth it.

MARTIN: So it's my understanding that this report is over a long period of time or evaluates data over a long period of time. So it doesn't necessarily show the effects of the recent recession, but could you just tell us, what are some of the major findings of the report? They're pretty stark, actually.

CARNEVALE: Yes, they are stark - more stark than we suppose they would be, frankly. If you go to college and get a bachelor's degree, on average, with notable exceptions, people will learn about 74 percent more than a high school graduate over their lifetime. That's upward of a million dollars. But the differences in the majors are up to 400 and 500 percent.

MARTIN: For example, overall lifetime, the earnings of workers who've majored in engineering, computer science or business are as much as 50 percent higher than the earnings of those who major in the humanities, the arts, education and psychology, which is what some of the young ladies we just heard from were commenting on. Any idea why that is?

CARNEVALE: It's because the labor market is buying more and more technical talent - engineering, computers, mathematics, physical sciences are earning a very high premium at the B.A. level. And an even higher premium if you get some graduate degree. So if you become a petroleum engineer, you'll make about $120,000 a year, on average, over a 40-year career. That comes out to almost $4 million by the time you're 64.

If you become a high school counselor, you'll earn $26,000 over a 40-year career. And that comes out to considerably less, about $1.4 million. So, there's almost a $3 million difference between the high end majors and the low end majors.

MARTIN: One of the ongoing questions in some circles is over the wage gap across racial lines and the wage gap across gender lines. And, of course, as you know, there's a lot of sort of heated political discussion around this. Is that gap, according to this report, in part because that there's a difference in what different groups study? Or majors that different groups are attracted to? Or is there a gap within the same major?

CARNEVALE: It is a stunning fact in this data that majors are highly segregated to begin with. That is, the men are in the technical majors, engineering, computers, the physical sciences and in business, which is not quite so technical, but is one where the concentrations of males are very high, with the exception of hospitality in business as a sub major where women are. But hospitality earns the least.

The women and minorities are in the softer majors, education, psychology and social work, arts and humanities and the like. It seems as if people who help other people make a lot less money than people who do math.

MARTIN: Once again, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about a new report that links college majors with long-term career earnings. We're speaking with Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which produced the report, which relied upon previously unreported census data over many, many years.

Now, we've talked about the fact that we reached out on Facebook to ask people what their experiences have been. And some people reported that they have been in the humanities and that they're doing just fine. I'll just play a short clip from one example of that. Here it is.

HENRY PLANT: My name is Henry Plant(ph) and I live in downtown Los Angeles. I graduated with two B.A. in fine arts and art history. I struggled like crazy for three years teaching myself programming and graphic arts. Now I'm a designer working for a Facebook games company with great pay, a great work environment and fantastic benefits. I think just because you're a liberal arts major it doesn't mean you won't be successful.

MARTIN: I'm sure that's true. But what would you think people should draw from this report, Mr. Carnevale? I mean, in a way, it's the kind of thing that's been whispered about in the academy for quite some time. Wouldn't you say? But it's been almost considered sort of crude to talk about.

CARNEVALE: I think what it says is that if you love learning, it'll love you back. But some different kinds of majors will pay you back more than others. And whatever you do when you go to college, don't just focus on getting the degree. Pay some attention to where the degree will take you, what occupation it will lead you to, what kind of a career. And if, in the end, you major in the humanities or the liberal arts or other areas where there's no obvious occupation that you're headed for, plan to go on to graduate school or some additional schooling to put an occupational point on your education pencil, something you can sell in the labor market.

MARTIN: How do you hope this report will be used? And do you have any fears about how this information will be used?

CARNEVALE: My hope that this report will be used in ways that makes it that other chapter in the college catalogue. After you've decided what it is you really want to learn, look to see what kind of career pathway it will send you down, and if that doesn't raise issues for you, full speed ahead.

My fear is that it will, in the end, crowd out Shakespeare. I think that in a panic to make careers for themselves, people will not pay attention to the kinds of personal development that comes from taking these kinds of humanities, arts and other courses that are taken more for passion than they are for building pensions.

MARTIN: Anthony P. Carnevale is the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. That is the group that produced this report that we've been talking about. If you want to read the report and read about it, we'll have links on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab, and then on TELL ME MORE.

Mr. Carnevale, thank you so much for joining us.

CARNEVALE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.