What the Latest Study Linking Majors and Earnings Doesn’t Tell Us: Know Your Options and Know Yourself

Earlier this week, Georgetown University released a study, based on data from the Census Bureau, showing how much each bachelor’s degree major is worth. The unsurprising findings include that “different undergraduate majors result in very different earnings,” with petroleum engineering majors as having the highest median earnings (click here for the full report, including press release and methodology)

Also unsurprising is the flurry of commotion that resulted from these findings. Publications including The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education had stories about the results, while readers (particularly concerned parents) have noted that all students going to college should read the study and think about their future earning capacity. However, I was pleased to see that 1) few commenters seemed to be plotting to maneuver their children into the petroleum engineering major and 2) more than a few comments advised students to think of other factors besides money when choosing a major.

There is no denying that potential earning power is an important consideration when selecting a college major (and a possible career). However, it certainly isn’t the only factor or even the most important one. In addition to knowing the different options that are available to you as well as the potential outcomes for those options, it is essential for you to know yourself, your interests, and your strengths. If you have no interest in engineering, then what good is it to major in petroleum engineering if you aren’t able to enjoy or appreciate your work? If social work and psychology are more aligned to your interests and personality, then you should explore this major. Economic studies suggest that if you enter a field to which you are ill suited you will actually earn less than you would in a field that aligned with your strengths and interests.

Yes, knowledge is power, and knowing what your salary might be in regards to your major is essential when making an informed decision. However, having this information does not mean you have to default immediately to the highest-earning major. Instead, remember to reflect on your strengths and personality in order to find the major that makes sense for you. Also, be certain to remember that a liberal arts education, regardless of major, has a number of notable (and marketable) benefits. For more information on this, read our other blog articles on the topic:

“In Defense of the Liberal Arts”
“Choosing a College: What Really Matters”

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