Choosing a major in college can pose an existential crisis for many young Americans. Settling on the right one requires juggling difficult questions about personal purpose, passion for a subject, and skill development, which all swirl around one massive question: who am I?
But there's another critical consideration looming over the choice of a major and, ultimately, a career path: How much will it pay?
To answer that question, Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce has issued the third installment of Hard Times, a report that delves into how college majors have shaped people's fates in the recent job market. The report draws from earnings and unemployment data between 2009 and 2012, during the painful wake of the Great Recession.
The researchers found that engineering, math, statistics and computing majors earn the highest annual income right out of college. Among the lowest-earning were students who majored in the arts and psychology and social work. No surprise there.
But it also includes insight into how much money students in different majors can expect to earn over the course of their careers, as well as how easy or difficult it is for graduates to get jobs in their field, and a number of the findings are fascinating.
What people are getting paid: The chart above is teeming with information, but here's the crux of it: Every bar represents a category of majors. The light blue mark near the bottom of each one represents the median earnings in 2011 and 2012 for a person between the ages of 22 and 26 who graduated with a bachelor's degree in that category of majors. As you work your way up the bar, the marks indicate more experience or education.
Recent graduate degree holders (indicated by the light red mark) are assumed to be between 25 and 34 years old. An experienced college graduate (dark blue) or experienced graduate degree holder (dark red) is defined as an individual between the ages of 35 and 54.
Among recent graduates, the highest earners are engineering majors, who make $57,000 a year, followed by computers, statistics and math majors with $48,000 and health majors at $43,000. The majors that offer the least amount of income straight out of school are the arts; industrial arts, consumer services and recreation; and psychology and social work, all at $31,000 a year.
Experience pays — but a graduate degree, combined with experience, almost always pays far more. With the exception of majors in the arts, education, psychology and social work, all majors breach the $70,000 mark for experienced workers with graduate degrees. Recent college grads in the physical sciences make $34,000 a year. Coupled with experience and a graduate degree, those students can expect to be making $105,000 further down the line.
A college degree remains an investment with immediate payoffs: Recent college graduates have a significant wage advantage over recent high school graduates in every field (who average $24,000 a year), and when combined with experience, that gulf widens.
How likely people are to be employed: Much like with earnings, majors play a pivotal role in the ease with which someone will find employment. The chart below displays the unemployment rate of recent college graduates in 2011-2012 broken down by categories of majors. The higher the unemployment rate for a category, the further down it falls in this chart:
Every field of study offers a recent college graduate a brighter employment outlook than an experienced high school diploma holder, with the exception of social science and architecture majors. Graduates in the arts sit alongside them at the bottom of the chart.
The lowest unemployment rates are among agriculture and natural resources majors (4.5%), physical sciences (5%) and education (5.1%).
But earnings don't always intuitively accord with immediate employment odds. Those architecture and social science majors who suffer from the worst chances of getting a job as young workers can find some consolation in the fact that if they can snag one, they tend to fare well in terms of income, especially if they eventually specialize at the graduate level. Education majors rank at the bottom of the earnings chart (alongside arts majors), but it isn't a field difficult to secure employment in without experience. Well-paid graduates in the information technology world are in the bottom half of the unemployment chart, but this shouldn't be surprising — the notion that America's economic dynamism is weighed down by a "skills gap" is largely a myth.
How are things getting better? The Hard Times report found that unemployment rates declined for workers overall, spanning almost every education and experience level between 2009 and 2012. Among recent college graduates, all majors saw a decline in unemployment rates except for communications and journalism majors, whose unemployment rate increased.
The story with wages, however, isn't as pleasant. Earnings declined for experienced graduate degree holders, recent graduate degree holders and recent college graduates. Experienced college graduates' earnings fared the best — they remained flat.
The report also has a prediction for the future: "A full recovery in the employment of college graduates ... may be as far off as 2017 and a full recovery in earnings may take longer." Things aren't quite as grim as before, but the employment situation for recent grads is far from perfect.