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Those charts of which college majors earn the most? They're most useful for white men.

For women college graduates, charts on which majors earn the most don't always apply.
For women college graduates, charts on which majors earn the most don't always apply.
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.

Every year, groups release reports and charts of the college majors that make the most money. The message is clear: here are the subjects you should major in if you want to get rich quick (or at least pay off your student loans).

The answer is "you should major in petroleum engineering," almost always. Here's a typical entry in that genre:

majors with the highest earnings

But there's a problem with those reports. They erase big gaps in incomes based on gender and race. That's highlighted in a 2011 report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. They ranked the highest-earning majors overall (the table above), but then they did something else: they broke down the data based on gender and race.

The report shows that relying on charts of the highest-earning majors might not serve you well if you're not a white, male college student. That's because the highest-earning fields in the chart up there tend to be utterly dominated by white men.

But only 26 percent of undergraduates are white men. To figure out which majors are financially rewarding to the 74 percent who aren't, you have to dig in deeper. And when you do, the data might surprise you:

1) The wage gap shows up in even in well-paid, male-dominated majors

The highest-earning major field for women is pharmaceutical sciences and administration, where bachelor's degree holders earn $100,000 per year and women make up 42 percent of the profession. Not bad! Except that men earn $110,000.

top earning majors for women

In nearly every high-paying major for women, men with that major earn still more. And men also outnumber women in those fields, usually by quite a bit. There's one exception where the wage gap goes the other way: information sciences. Women are relatively rare (only 25 percent of the profession), but their typical earnings are higher than the typical earnings for men by $10,000.

This matters, because it means that charts that don't break out salaries by gender can be misleading. Women just looking at the highest-earning majors wouldn't see information sciences or computer science on the list — and could miss out on a financially rewarding career as a result.

This also means that judging colleges based on what their graduates earn, an idea that's increasingly popular, can be misleading. You could end up rewarding not just colleges with a lot of engineers or scientists, but colleges that enroll a disproportionate number of white men.

2) The highest-earning majors for white men are in fields where women and minorities are absent

Many of the highest-earning majors have so few women that they don't even show up in the data because sample sizes are too small. Petroleum engineering, for example, usually leads the list of high-earning majors, with median earnings of $120,000 per year.

At least, that's how much you might earn if you're a white man. If you're a woman? We don't actually know, because women are so underrepresented in petroleum engineering that there's no earnings data available. The sample size is just too small.

Highest earning majors for men

The same is true for several other engineering fields — aerospace, environmental, and marine engineering among them — with high salaries for men.

Highest earning majors for men

3) The wage gaps by race for high-earning majors are staggering

Electrical engineering pays well, period. Median earnings are $85,000 per year. It's in the highest-earning majors for women: $70,000 per year. And it's the highest-earning major for African-Americans: $68,000 per year.

Still, the typical black electrical engineering major makes $22,000 less per year than the typical white electrical engineering major. And black and Hispanic college graduates lag far behind their white counterparts in other well-paid majors, too:

highest-earning majors black students

Again, this shows how relying on medians that don't break out by race or gender can be misleading. For black students, nursing isn't just a route to a good job — it's one of the most financially rewarding majors, period. And Asians who majored in nursing end up even better-paid than other races. Neither of those facts show up on a get-rich-quick list of college majors — where white, male students are far more represented than they are on campus today.

Correction: An earlier version of this article described the Georgetown report as new. It was actually released in 2011.

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