Wealth Management

College is still worth it, research finds — although these majors have the lowest rate of return

For decades, research showed that earning a degree is almost always worthwhile.

Recent college graduates working full-time earn $24,000 more a year than those with just a high school diploma, according to newly released data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Additionally, finishing college puts workers on track to earn a median of $2.8 million over their lifetimes, compared with $1.6 million if they only had a high school degree, according to “The College Payoff,” a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

In general, bachelor’s degree holders earn 75% more over their career, the report found — and, in many cases, the higher the level of educational attainment, the larger the payoff.

However, a lot still depends on the choice of major, research also shows.

College majors with the highest and lowest return

A recent study published in the American Educational Research Journal found that engineering and computer science majors provide the highest returns in lifetime earnings, followed by business, health and math and science majors. Education and humanities and arts majors had the lowest returns of the 10 fields of study considered.

“Our cost-benefit analysis finds that on average a college degree offers better returns than the stock market,” said Liang Zhang, a professor of higher education at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and co-author of the study. “However, there are significant differences across college majors.”

Overall, the researchers found that the benefits of higher education have held up, even as enrollment has declined and the labor market outcomes for those without a college degree have improved, Zhang said.

The analysis took into account wage differentials between college and high school graduates as well as other factors, including tuition and financial aid and the opportunity cost of deferring full-time entry into the workplace. 

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Students who pursue a major specifically in science, technology, engineering and math — collectively known as STEM disciplines — are projected to earn the most overall, the Georgetown Center also found.

In addition to STEM, health and business majors are among the highest-paying, leading to average annual wages that are higher at the entry level and significantly greater over the course of a career compared with liberal arts and humanities majors.

For workers with a bachelor’s degree, education was the lowest-earning field of study, followed by psychology and social work and the arts.

“Students need professional guidance on the economic outcomes of college and career pathways before they make one of the biggest decisions of their lives,” Ban Cheah, a senior economist at the Center on Education and the Workforce and co-author of the report, said in a statement.

Students question the value of college

Between the sky-high cost and student loan burden, more students are taking a closer look at college’s return on investment.

Most Americans still agree that a college education is worthwhile when it comes to career goals and advancement. However, only half think the economic benefits outweigh the costs, according to a report by Public Agenda, USA Today and Hidden Common Ground — and young adults are particularly skeptical.

The rising cost of college and ballooning student loan balances have played a large role in changing views about the higher education system, which many think is rigged to benefit the wealthy, the report found. 

Now only 45% of students from low-income, first-generation or minority backgrounds believe education after high school is necessary, according to a separate study by ECMC Group.

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