Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

A post that will help your parents yell at you

Arnold Kling got his hands on some interesting survey data that shows average incomes by college major, and that allowed him to break out the 25th percentile for each major. His findings won't be comforting to humanities or life sciences majors:

Pulling up the average are computer science, engineering, business, health, math, and vocational-technical. Pulling down the average are life sciences (why is this so low?), social sciences, humanities, physical sciences (again, why so low?), education, and "other technical/professional."

If the ultimate question is whether more students should attend and graduate from college, then perhaps what should interest me is something like the income of the lowest 25th percentile within each major. That might give a better idea of what we might expect to see at the margin if more students graduated college in the various majors.

At the 25th percentile, the really bad majors are life sciences (again, what are these, and why do they do so poorly?), humanities, and social sciences. Perhaps the 25th percentile of these three groups is what defines the unskilled college graduate. Note how much better vocational-technical looks at the 25th percentile.

By Ezra Klein  |  April 9, 2010; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  Education  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Some individual mandate discussion
Next: Can we close the budget deficit by taxing the rich?


It seems obvious why most life sciences and physical sciences are low assuming he was looking at undergraduate degrees. To succeed in these fields you generally need either a master's or more likely a PhD. After getting an advance degree, earning potential grows.

Posted by: jonathnaleshin | April 9, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

How much is being paid a TA or GA salary while in grad school, or making even less as you go through law school or med school part of this issue?

My guess is that science majors make so little when they are right out is because they are either in grad school or med school.

Posted by: thescuspeaks | April 9, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

It looks to me like he's using data showing graduates 1-2 years out of college, with a bachelor's degree only. Agreeing with the previous poster, graduate school absolutely matters, and with or without graduate school, liberal arts grads in the social sciences and humanities take a while to grow into their skills. I'd like to see similar data for 10 and 20 years after graduation.

Posted by: lbmd | April 9, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I went to art school, and if I had been able to afford it, I would have done the graduate program at art school. Twenty years later, I'm doing database and web development. I make decent money (I work for the public schools!) but there's very little relation to what I'm doing now and what I went to college to study, or what I would have studied, had I gone to graduate school.

It would be interesting to see what the graduates were making 10 and 20 years out, but also what field they were actually working in. I expect lots of people end up in fields that are only tangentially related to their original field of study.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 9, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

A while back, the WSJ posted a thing about more specific majors and their earnings both right after college and 10 years out. They also restricted it to people with just the undergrad degree that were actually employed somewhere - no grad students or people with higher degrees muddying things up.

Posted by: Malatesta | April 9, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

While I was in college studying Business Management, the head of the department gave a presentation about starting salaries in one of the core classes that all business majors had to take. Business Management was at the very bottom. Computer Information Systems was at the top. After class I went straight to my advisor and changed my major. Best. Decision. Ever.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | April 9, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Kevin Willis said: "I expect lots of people end up in fields that are only tangentially related to their original field of study."

Yes, and while Kevin doesn't say whether he's glad for his humanities degree, I hope he is.

There's nothing wrong with this. It's called EDUCATION! You use a few of your prime years to gain perspective, knowledge, insight, sympathy... you read the Iliad... this is good.

Posted by: neversaylie | April 9, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

The humanities are supposed to provide a preparation for active participation in civic life on the part of free men and women, who may need to change from one career to another and who need to be able to communicate effectively in speech and writing and to make considered judgments in ethics and public policy, based on a broad knowledge of history, science, mathematics, philosophy, foreign languages, and the arts.

Posted by: harold3 | April 9, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Pre-med students major in life sciences. The ones who stop at a bachelors didn't make it into med school.

Posted by: ttheisen | April 9, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I think you and Mr. Kling are reading a bit too much into this data--it only measures salaries two years at most after graduation, and it's from 10 years ago when the markets for tech and business majors were much more robust. Keep in mind that a lot of life sciences and humanities people will be in medical/graduate/law school and not pulling down big salaries. This might be useful/interesting historical data about entry-level incomes, but as a snapshot of the earning potential for majors today it's worthless.

C'mon Ezra, you're always better than this!

Posted by: laoghaire1 | April 9, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

This is kind of a ridiculous survey. Performing a salary query on graduates one year out of college, regardless of field? Low-paid internships are very common during the first year after graduation. I'm 5-6 years out, and I have many friends, employed in various fields, who have only recently settled in to respectably-salaried positions. And, as many posters have pointed out, it's silly to ask this question in fields where post-graduate degrees are required for any advanced (and therefore well-paid) work.

Posted by: DueDiligence | April 9, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

I second the comments of other posters on the board. I'm in chemical biology (so say, halfway between a life sciences and a physical sciences major) and 90% of the people I knew with my same major in college two years out were a) working in low-level tech/sales positions in biotech than have short glass ceilings; b) in grad school getting a PhD; c) in med school. So I think this data is basically useless, since it favors "immediately marketable, vocation-like" college majors like engineering and computer science.

Posted by: btavshanjian | April 9, 2010 9:26 PM | Report abuse

I completely sympathize with this. I graduated with a degree in biochemistry (with honors and 3 six month internships under my belt) and could only find a job paying $17 an hour in a lab doing the same work as people with only a high school diploma. I stayed for two years, realized I'd reached the ceiling, and went back to school for an MPH. Granted it's what I really wanted to do, but even if it wasn't I didn't really have a choice. Unlike other careers where work experience matters, science is heavily hierarchical and there is no way to move up without earning more degrees (which, ironically, are just expensive mimics of work experience). Also, I've noticed in every place I've worked that there is a huge influx of immigrants from China who work in labs for practically nothing. I have to assume that contributes to the hourly rate for lab work being lower than you'd expect.

Posted by: megankeenan | April 9, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company