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13 charts that explain why your college major matters

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Students pay a lot of attention to where they go to college. But the evidence suggests that it's your major, not your college, that makes the biggest difference – at least when it comes to whether you find a job, how much money you make, and maybe even how happy you are in the office. The good news is there's more information out there than ever on what choosing a major could mean. The American Community Survey now asks people about what they majored in. Payscale releases annual reports of what graduates earn. And other surveys try to get at the less quantifiable stuff — like whether graduates are fulfilled in their jobs and have meaningful lives. Here's what we've learned from that information.


  1. Majors making the most money early

    Going to college isn't really a get-rich-quick scheme — the opportunity cost of four years not on the job market takes care of that. But if your biggest ambition is to make a lot of money right away, you should be an engineer. Actually, you should be a petroleum engineer; the gap between that major and the rest is pretty astonishing. In general, though, jobs in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — are very well-compensated in the first years after college.

  2. Majors making the most money later

    The picture doesn't look as different at mid-career for many majors as you might expect. The average person in this data set is 44 years old and has 15 years of experience. Petroleum engineering is still on top (getting oil out of the ground is, unsurprisingly, a very lucrative skill). But a few other majors have crept up the ranks, particularly economics. Still, the picture is pretty clear: if what's most important to you is a high salary without needing to pursue graduate education, engineering is a good choice.

  3. Majors making the least at mid-career

    Money isn't everything. But the market clearly values some majors more than others. While engineering and mathematically focused jobs command big salaries, jobs that involve teaching young children are paid much less. Child development majors with years of experience are still making much less than entry-level engineers. It's worth noting that some of these fields make you eligible to enroll in programs that could forgive your student loans. They're designed that way out of concern that people with debt won't go into low-paying fields.

  4. Majors by lifetime earnings

    All this adds up to a fairly big difference in lifetime earnings that follows the same pattern: engineers at the top, early childhood educators at the bottom. The engineers earn more than $1 million more over the course of their lifetimes. Of course, if you factored in graduate school here, these results would look different.

  5. Mind the (wage) gap

    Many of the best-paid majors also turn out to be majors that are predominantly male. Looking at wages as the consequence of major alone, and not the result of trends in the broader economy, can miss the point. Women actually make more, on average, as nursing majors than as finance majors, although charts that only show majors would make you believe the opposite. "A male English major makes the same as a female math major, and a female economics major makes less than a male history major," writes Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University. "So the next time you see someone arguing that only fools major in art history, remind them that the real thing holding back most English majors in the workplace isn't their degree but systemic discrimination against their sex in the American economy."

  6. Jobs and graduate school

  7. Unemployment rate by major field

    This comes from an Education Department survey of the class of 2008 four years after graduation. 2008 was a terrible year to graduate college, but how much graduates were affected by high unemployment rates varied a lot by major. STEM, education, and health care majors were essentially in the economic recovery in 2012, while graduates in the humanities and social sciences still had almost double-digit unemployment.

  8. What do you do with a BA in English?

    Ben Schmidt at Northeastern University compiled data on what people majored in, versus what careers they went in to, from the American Community Survey, which counts a small sample of the US population. Some of the findings weren't suprising — biology majors were very likely to go to medical school and become doctors. Philosophy and religious studies majors ended up in the clergy. And history majors go to law school. Schimdt's data allows us to answer a question posed by the Broadway musical Avenue Q almost a decade ago: with a BA in English, you teach. Or become a lawyer. Or a manager. The liberal arts truly are flexible.

  9. Which majors go to graduate school?

    Of course, not everyone stops their education with their undergraduate major — and, depending on the major, the bachelor's degree might just be a starting point. Master's degrees are as common today as bachelor's degrees were in the 1960s, but who earns them varies a lot by undergraduate major. STEM majors are the most likely to keep on with graduate school, but additional years of education are fairly common for psychology majors, English majors, and education majors. This has an impact on what lifetime earnings look like, since professional degrees, master's degrees or doctorates aren't always factored into that data.

  10. Popularity

  11. Most popular majors over time

    Business is by far the most popular major in the US: about 1 in 5 bachelor's degrees awarded each year is in business. Education, by contrast, has shrunk significantly since the 1970s: from 22 percent of all graduates in 1970 to 6 percent in 2011. And although the media job market is in worse shape than it was in the 1970s, journalism has become relatively much more popular.

  12. The most popular major in every state

    Even though education is a less popular major now than it used to be, it's still holding its own state-by-state. This map shows the most popular major in every state. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of business majors. But northern New England — Maine and Vermont — are still clinging to the English major. (Click through for the full version of the Business Insider map.)

  13. The most distinctive major in every state

    This map shows which majors are disproportionately popular in every state. Most of them make intuitive sense. An unusually high proportion of film majors live in California, petroleum engineers live in Texas and Louisiana, and hospitality majors are more likely to live in Nevada. (Click through for the full version of the Business Insider map.)

  14. Life and well-being

  15. How meaningful is your work?

    PayScale, the company that asks college graduates about their salaries, also asks about how meaningful they find their work. There isn't a perfect correlation between salary and meaning. Generally speaking, many of the majors that lead to low-paying jobs also carry high meaning. But petroleum engineers, the best-paid majors, just miss making this list. (Seventy percent say their work is meaningful.)

  16. Financial well-being, by college major

    Gallup surveyed nearly 30,000 college graduates earlier this year, asking about their physical, financial, and social well-being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their higher salaries, STEM majors are the most likely to be able to manage their financial lives to reduce stress and insecurity, they found.



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