Posted by: Gregory Linton | 05/17/2018

Center on Education and the Workforce publishes “Five Rules of the College and Career Game”

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce continually puts out helpful and thought-provoking publications on issues related to higher education and workforce readiness. Their latest publication, released this week, is “Five Rules of the College and Career Game.” The lead author is Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and one of my favorite authors on higher education issues.

The 13-page report is dominated by graphics and charts more than text. Its basic premise is that “postsecondary education and training has become the most well-traveled pathway to middle class earning.” The report points out that two-thirds of jobs now require workers with at least some college. However, the choices of college and programs have grown exponentially since 1950 so that students are confronted with a bewildering array of options. Also, the stakes are higher because the cost of college has also increased exponentially since 1980. Added to these complications is the fact that 51% of college graduates say they would change their major or institution if they had it to do over again. These factors put pressure on prospective students to think carefully about their choices.

To help students navigate “the college game,” the authors offer five rules to guide them as they make the transition to college and then to career. I will summarize the five rules that they offer (stated in my own words) and provide a few observations of my own. The report contains more information than I will focus on here.

Rule 1: More education generally results in more income.

The median earnings of bachelor’s degree holders is $62,000, which is $26,000 more than the median earning of someone with a high school diploma. This means that, over a lifetime, a college graduate on average makes more than $1 million more than a high school graduate. The median earnings of a graduate degree is $80,000.

Rule 2: Certain majors earn more money than other majors.

This point is rather obvious, but some of the statistics offered in the report are interesting. The median earnings of bachelor’s degrees in architecture and engineering is $39,000 more than bachelor’s degrees in education. But even the lowest income-producing major (education) produces $10,000 more per year than the median earnings of a high school diploma.

Rule 3: Income levels vary widely within majors.

The most interesting fact here is that the top 25 percent of liberal arts majors ($81,000) make more than the bottom 25 percent of architecture and engineering majors ($60,000). Although the text of the report does not highlight the following point, the chart provided indicates that the spread within each major between the 75th percentile of earners and the 25th percentile of earners is wider in some majors than others. For example, the gap in education and psychology and social work appears to be very narrow, perhaps indicating that earnings do not increase much over time. These fields may require a graduate degree in order to earn as much as the average bachelor’s degree holder. In majors such as social sciences and physical sciences, the spread seems to be much wider.

Rule 4: Lower degrees can earn more than higher degrees.

Someone with a certificate in a STEM field will earn significantly more than someone with a bachelor’s degree in education ($60,000 vs. $46,000). A bachelor’s degree in business earns more than a graduate degree in psychology and social work. Again, the choice of major affects future income.

Rule 5: Humanities and liberal arts majors will always be at a disadvantage.

This rule seems to contradict Rule 3. However, it makes sense that the median earnings for liberal arts majors will never match the median earnings of the STEM fields. The shocking fact, though, is that the authors suggest that median earnings for humanities and liberal arts and similar fields such as social sciences actually decline later in life. The chart indicates that humanities and liberal arts majors reach peak earnings of $66,000 at age 45 but that it declines to $62,000 by age 59. Social sciences majors reach a peak of $78,000 at age 45, but their earnings decline to $66,000 by age 59. This finding seems to contradict the argument of George Anders in You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a Useless Liberal Arts Education (Little, Brown & Company, 2017) that earnings of liberal arts majors generally increase over a lifetime and eventually surpass earnings of other technical fields.

Conclusion: Money isn’t everything.

Reports such as these make me uncomfortable because they focus entirely on income as if that is the only or most important reason for choosing a major or career. Certainly, if all that a person cares about is making as much money as possible, that person should pursue a degree in engineering rather than a degree in education. But for many people, future income is not the most important consideration.

People who go into education should know that they will never make as much income as someone in the business world, but they are motivated by the desire to help young people and by a passion for teaching. The helping professions don’t pay as well as STEM fields, but many people in those professions experience a high degree of life satisfaction because they are doing something that makes a difference in the lives of others. We know from numerous studies that more income does not necessarily translate into more happiness. People should pursue their passions but with eyes wide open that they may never earn as much money as people who go into other fields of work.

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