We all know the conventional wisdom: STEM majors earn more than humanities and liberal arts majors. Year after year, parents and pundits exhort students to choose practical majors so they can get good jobs, pay off their student loans, and prosper in a modern economy.
But how much truth is there in the conventional wisdom? Economist Douglas A. Webber recently provided data on the topic. His estimates come from the 2012-2016 American Community Surveys and a lifetime earnings model he created.
Webber describes the data, saying:
“The estimates only apply to wage and salary earnings, and do not include other forms of compensation. Individuals who say that they are out of the labor force are excluded from the sample. All numbers are presented in constant 2016 dollars. The figures in this table are based on individuals who do not hold any degree past a Bachelor’s. All majors for which there was sufficient sample size across age groups to reliably estimate conditional means and variances were included.”
In general, Webber’s data show that the conventional wisdom is correct. The five highest-paying majors in his analysis were all engineering: chemical, aerospace, computer, mechanical, and electrical. Close behind are finance, computer science, economics, and nursing.
The least-lucrative majors pay little more than dropping out of college altogether. Theology, studio arts, drama, music, and education are all in the bottom ten in terms of median lifetime earnings.
You can explore the results in an interactive graph, here.
What stands out, in addition to the stark difference between theologians and engineers, is the wide variety of incomes within majors. Webber finds “substantial heterogeneity in the returns to each educational outcome, ranging from $700,000 for Arts/Humanities majors to $1.5 million for Science Technology Engineering or Math (STEM) graduates (each premium is relative to high school graduates with no college experience).”
Douglas’ additional research on the topic is available in two recent articles, “The lifetime earnings premia of different majors: Correcting for selection based on cognitive, noncognitive, and unobserved factors” and “Are college costs worth it? How ability, major, and debt affect the returns to schooling.”