According to a new study conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, the average college graduate will earn $2.4 million over his or her lifetime. Engineering majors, the highest-earning major, will earn more than $3.6 million. The study, which is part of the 2011 American Community Survey, showed that the choice of major can make the difference between earning less than a million dollars — as in the case of a childcare worker with an education degree — or more than $6.5 million, as a physician or surgeon who majored in biology.
The study, which divided college majors into 13 separate categories, determined how much a graduate can reasonably expect to earn over a lifetime if they go down one of these paths. The differences are stark. Based on the survey, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the expected lifetime earnings of all 13 categories of college majors, from the arts and humanities to science and engineering, as well as the most popular careers for each type of major.
In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Bureau of Labor Statistics Chief Regional Economist Martin Kohli explained that choosing an education track for many comes down to more than just money. Many young people, he said, have other priorities, such as the ability to help people and the opportunity to be self-employed. That being said, he continued, “many young people really do not have a good sense of how much the differences are in income in different professions, certainly not over a lifetime.”
Comparing the most common occupations for each major demonstrates the extreme differences in pay. Of the eight most common careers for engineering majors, which together account for more than 40% of all employed engineering graduates, the lowest median lifetime earnings are just under $3.5 million. In education — which has the lowest median lifetime pay — nearly 40% become elementary and middle school teachers. The median lifetime wage for these teachers is barely over $2 million.
Some majors are better for the future self-employed than others. Pursuing a major in the physical sciences might be a poor choice; just 1.4% of those graduates successfully find careers working for themselves, compared to 9% across all majors. However, that small percentage earns a median income of approximately $91,700, more than self-employed workers in any other field. On the other hand, nearly 14% of visual and performing arts majors are self-employed. But graduates earn just $42,344, nearly $20,000 less than the median for self-employed people.
The gender pay gap across the 13 majors is alarming in some cases and helps explain why women make 77.4% of a man’s salary, according the Census Bureau. The smallest annual pay gap occurs among visual and performing arts majors, at $7,247, followed by education majors, at $8,227. In the worst cases, the median annual salary for a man who majors in the physical sciences is more than $90,000. For a woman, the number is just $61,363.
Based on the U.S. Census Bureau study, 24/7 Wall St. identified the median lifetime earnings for each category of major. This number is calculated by multiplying the median income for each age group by the number of years in that age group, and then taking the sum of all these numbers. This method also assumes people work in their chosen career from ages 25 to 64. 24/7 Wall St. also used employment and other earnings data provided by the Census Bureau, as well as job outlook information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook.
These are the highest (and lowest) paying college majors.