There are few advantages of getting old, but one of them is professors gain a body of former students whose accomplishments provide great pleasure. One of mine is Andrew Gillen, who graduated from college 20 or so years ago, got a Ph.D. at Florida State, worked for me for a while at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and now flourishes as a scholar at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).
Like me, Andrew loves data, and when the U.S. Department of Education did a rare useful thing by publishing data on college student earnings by school and major, I knew Andrew would be in statistical nirvana for years. The ratio of accumulated student debt to early postgraduate annual earnings is an excellent measure of the financial burden of earning a college degree relative to the benefits of doing so. While the college for all crowd tells us it pays to get a degree, that sweeping generalization does not apply to all individuals, schools or fields of study, as Andrew reminds us in new studies from TPPF. Looking at Texas schools, he found dozens of programs where the debt-earnings ratio is precariously high. And some schools fared better than others: Texas Southern University had five programs ranked excellent or good by Gillen, but an astonishing 15 ranked mediocre, poor, or in four cases terrible. By contrast, at the main campus of Texas A&M, 63 programs were rated excellent, but only one as mediocre. Should someone (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board?) exercise some quality control and close the awful programs?
Inspired by Andrew, I had my intrepid student Braden Colegrove analyze my mid-quality university (Ohio University) to observe variations in graduate earnings by major. The results were astonishing. For example, the history and economics departments are neighborsliterally a few dozen feet away from one another. We share classrooms in Bentley Hall. Yet those claiming a major in economics had median earnings after graduation that were 57 percent higher than history majors taking many of the same general education courses in our College of Arts and Sciences. Located just across the street is Copeland Hall, home of the accounting department. The median earnings of the accountants was 143% !!! higher than for the historians learning nearby. Averaging even higher earnings were the civil engineers, toiling a couple of blocks away, while the Department of Education tells us that the Ohio University English majors studying five minutes from my office typically earned after graduation less annually ($22,329) than some new full-time workers at Wal-Mart with a high school diploma.
Of course, this is not the whole storymaybe not even half of it. First of all, there is more to life than money. Many English majors I know lead joyous fulfilling lives even without enormous material abundance. Second, earnings rise enormously for most workers over their career, and the low paying history major of 2021 might be a plutocratic fat cat executive 25 years later. Historians are usually good writers and good thinkers, good qualities in seeking career advancement.
Third, median earnings often disguise wide variations around that number, and exceptionally good individuals do well. One of my favorite students graduating in 2021 is no doubt making with bonuses a six digit income at the Private Bank of J.P. Morgan Chase in New York, while another is toiling for far less in a clerical role in a nearby rural law office. I like them both, and think both will be happy in life.
Lastly, most human beings find a mate (some more than one) to live with during their adult life. What is relevant is not individual earnings so much as household income. The $25,000 English major might marry a $60,000 finance major who in five years will be making $150,000 a year. College is where many find love and ultimately marriage. College is about learning and earning, but also about developing life-long friendshipsits also about love and sex.
Bottom line: majors are as important, often more important, than choice of college. For most students, good advice is to Think about what you like and are good at, and explore different options early in your college career before choosing a major.