Report: Which college majors make you the most money?

profitable college majors

Getting a bachelors degree certainly pays off in the long run, but there is a vast difference – up to 300 percent – in earnings potential among undergraduate majors, according to a report unveiled today by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

College graduates as a group make 84 percent more over a lifetime than high school graduates, but the study of 171 majors shows that different focuses of study in college can lead to wildly different median wages.

Petroleum engineer majors, for instance, make about $120,000 a year, compared to $29,000 for counseling psychology majors. Another example from the study: math and computer science majors earn $98,000 yearly while early childhood education majors get paid about $36,000.

"It's important that you go to college and get a (bachelor's degree), but it's almost three to four times more important what you take," Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce, said in a statement. "The majors that are most popular are not the ones that make the most money."

The report, “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,”  is somewhat groundbreaking because it ties salary data to undergraduate majors across a person’s lifetime.

The analyses contained in the report are based on newly released data from the 2009 American Community Survey (ACS). For the first time, in this survey, the Census Bureau asked individuals who indicated that their degree was a bachelor's degree or higher, to supply their undergraduate major. Their responses were then coded and collapsed by the Census Bureau into 171 different degree majors. Unlike other data sources focused on recent degree recipients, the Census data enables analysis across an individual’s full life cycle.

Some of the findings include:

The top 10 majors with the highest median earnings:

  • Petroleum Engineer ($120,000)
  • Pharmacy/pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration ($105,000)
  • Mathematics and Computer Sciences ($98,000)
  • Aerospace Engineering ($87,000)
  • Chemical Engineering ($86,000)
  • Electrical Engineering ($85,000)
  • Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering ($82,000)
  • Mechanical Engineering, Metallurgical Engineering and Mining and Mineral Engineering (each with median earnings of $80,000)

The 10 majors with the lowest median earnings:

  • Counseling/Psychology ($29,000)
  • Early Childhood Education ($36,000)
  • Theology and Religious Vocations ($38,000)
  • Human Services and Community Organizations ($38,000)
  • Social Work ($39,000)
  • Drama and Theater Arts, Studio Arts, Communication Disorders Sciences and Services, Visual and Performing Arts, and Health and Medical Preparatory Programs (each at $40,000)

In addition to yearly salaries, the report also includes information on how majors break down by race and gender.

The study found that white men are concentrated in the highest-earning majors, including engineering and pharmaceutical sciences, while women gravitate toward the lowest-earning majors -- education, art and social work.

“Unfortunately, race and gender earnings gaps still exist in almost all fields. For example, even in their highest paid major, electrical engineering, African-Americans still earn $22,000 less than whites and $12,000 less than Asians with the same major. Women tend to hold the majority of degrees in many of the lower-paying fields, such as education, but even women with degrees in the higher-paying field of chemical engineering earn, on average, $20,000 less than equally educated male counterparts,” according to the report.

Also, the report found that in some fields, such as geological and geophysical engineering, military technologies, pharmacology and school student counseling, there is “virtually no unemployment.” On the flip side, majors with the highest unemployment rates are in the following: social psychology at 16 percent, nuclear engineering at 11 percent and educational administration and supervision at 11 percent.

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