SAN JOSE, Calif. – With just a few clicks, American college students can see that on average fine artists earn $29,000 straight out of school while electrical engineers who spent their days hunkered over circuit boards start at $57,000 and are less likely to be out of work.
A tough job market and growing student-loan debt have inspired keen interest in whether graduates are finding jobs and how much they make. Now, using new U.S. Census information, economists are attaching hard numbers to the career prospects and earnings potential of college majors.
“The earnings differences among these different fields of study are very wide, so what you take matters a lot,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
In recent studies, Carnevale and his colleagues have found that when it comes to pay, what a college student studies matters more than which school she chooses – a decision often taken far more seriously. In other words, a California State University engineering degree will likely lead to better pay than a literature degree from anywhere, even Harvard.
“By and large, it’s what you take, not where you go,” he said.
But many college students are teenagers years away from the real world when they make this momentous decision. Even if career dollar figures appeared in course catalogs for each major, would students flee their dance studios and philosophy classes en masse?
Probably not. Even those who say students deserve more information acknowledge salaries would be just one of many factors in play.
“If you’re 18 years old, you’re thinking of a lot of other things than what you’ll be making when you’re 35,” said Mark Schneider, the author of a recent study highlighting the payoff of certain majors, including two-year technical degrees.
Interviews with nearly two dozen college students dispelled any notion of a mass migration from liberal arts to accounting and engineering. Yes, students are aware – how could they possibly not be? – that it might be tough to find good jobs out of college, and that some fields pay better than others. But whether they chose art history or biology, most said something besides the bottom line drove their choices.
“I’ve always done excellent in my math classes, but it’s just not something that makes me feel dreamy,” said University of California-Berkeley English major Hilary Ortiz, who had been reading outside Moffitt Library. “Sure I could have majored in statistics, but where would I be now?”
The intangibles mattered even to those studying engineering – the highest-paid field in Carnevale’s latest study of majors. With average starting salaries of about $55,000, they earn $7,000 more than the average bachelor’s degree-holder and $25,000 more than psychology, arts or social work majors.
“Salary is an added bonus, but that’s not why I chose it,” said Megan Gentes, whose love of math drew her to chemical engineering at Berkeley.
Matt Miller at Cal said he was excited by what he could do in chemical engineering, “from solar panels to more absorbent diapers.”
“My dad, his philosophy is if you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life,” he said.
Perhaps there’s good reason for students to like what they study, especially if it is notoriously rigorous: staying power. Nationally, more than 40 percent of declared engineering majors change their minds. “You have to want to do it to put yourself through this, right?” said Mina Yi, a computer engineering student at San Jose State University.
San Jose State senior Krysta Shaw is one of several students who started with a highly marketable major before changing to one that made her happy – musical theater. “I started school as a math major, and I was like, ‘I hate my life. I cry all the time. How could this possibly be worth it?’ ”
Shaw, who teaches dance and might one day open a studio, said the kinds of numbers in Carnevale’s studies haunt her.
“I look at those things and I go, ‘I guess I need to be a doctor. I guess I need to be an engineer,’ ” Shaw said. “It just sucks the life out of you to say, ‘I just need to make money.’ ”
Some students try to balance passion and practicality.
Alexander Polussa, a freshman molecular biology major at Cal, said he enjoys history, music and writing, but that he felt a science degree would make him more well-rounded and help him get a job.
“I don’t think I’d find a career as a historian or a novelist, even though it’s what I enjoy doing,” he said.
Publishing – or being forced to publish – earnings information is not popular in academia. The California Community Colleges system released wage data this year, but the University of California and California State University do not plan to do so.
Some say linking salaries to college degrees sends the wrong message. A student who goes on to teach in an impoverished neighborhood is arguably more productive to society than one who goes into finance, said Russell Berman, a Stanford humanities professor.
“I think the focus on dollar amount is misguided,” Berman said. “There ought to be a different way to describe career trajectories.”
But, Carnevale predicts, if college catalogs included earnings, some students would start to demand better career preparation.
They might ask the fine art department, “If I want to major in art, how are you going to set it up so I can do art for the next 45 years after I get up each morning and have breakfast?” he said.
Human development is an important aspect of the college experience, Carnevale said. But, “In the end, in this economy, it’s about getting a job.”