While bachelor’s degrees bring their holders higher salaries than they would otherwise earn, not all degrees from the various majors have the same economic value, and disturbing pay disparities persist for minorities and women.
Such are two of the major conclusions that can be drawn from a new report released Tuesday and titled What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors.
Produced by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the report—funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Lumina foundations—is meant to take the national discussion about the economic benefits of a higher education to the next level.
It does so by using federal census data to delineate—in painstaking detail—the earning power of college degrees in 171 specific majors, and then breaking the data down further by gender, ethnicity and other factors within various fields and occupations.
Dr. Anthony Carnevale, a labor economist and director of the Georgetown center that produced the report, said in a webcast that the key findings of the report are twofold.
“Our essential conclusion is that, while it is important to go to college and certainly advantageous to get a bachelor’s degree, what is even more important in the end is what you take, what you major in,” Carnevale said. “The other finding is, in general, college majors in America are highly segregated by sex, by race, by ethnicity and segregated in a way that looks like America.
“That is, males, especially White males, do considerably better than either females or minorities.”
Indeed, the study shows, for instance, that White median earnings surpassed that of all other groups in all but a few fields, and, in those cases, White median earnings were surpassed only by those of Asians. Similarly, the earnings of men surpassed that of women from $7,000 to $18,000 per year in the various fields.
One of the starkest disparities the study turned up was in the field of engineering, which accounted for eight of the top 10 majors with the highest median earnings.
For instance, Whites in the field of engineering earned a median annual salary of $80,000, whereas African-Americans and Hispanics in engineering earned $60,000 and $56,000, respectively. Asians in engineering, on the other hand, earned a median salary of $72,000, and members of other races and ethnicities in engineering earned a median salary of $57,000.
Asked by Diverse during the Webinar to explain such disparities, Carnevale said the cause is undetermined and suggested that other research would be more useful to help illuminate the matter.
“When we look at people in engineering, they all have the same knowledge, one assumes, and we also control for their labor force, that is, they’re all full-time, full-year workers, so that, in the end, the minorities and women know the same thing and are working just as hard; they’re just not making as much,” Carnevale said. “There is a residual there that is unexplained, and with any unexplained residual we can all fantasize as to what it means. The obvious explanation is there is something going on there.”
While the pay disparity that minorities and women face within specific fields in engineering, such as electrical engineering, is one factor, there are other factors as well, particularly when engineering is looked at more broadly.
For instance, the highest paying engineering jobs are to be found in petroleum engineering ($189,000), naval architecture and marine engineering ($120,000), mining and mineral engineering ($125,000), and metallurgical engineering ($106,000).
However, African-Americans were extremely underrepresented in those particular fields of engineering, never comprising more than 2 percent of any one field, whereas African-Americans were more heavily represented in electrical engineering (6 percent) and architecture (4 percent).
Overall, minorities and women tended to earn less because they gravitated to majors that were lower-paying, whereas the higher-paying majors were dominated by White males, the study found.
For instance, Carnevale said, women and minorities dominated the top 10 majors with lowest median earnings. Those majors included Counseling and Psychology, Early Childhood Education, Human Services and Community Organization, Social Work, Drama and Theater Arts, Studio Arts and Health and Medical Preparatory Programs.
“People that help other people make the least money,” Carnevale said. “People who make the most money are the most productive, but not necessarily the most socially productive.”
In light of pervasive fiscal challenges, Carnevale said the study’s findings have implications for the discussion about how much the public should contribute to support higher education, particularly when it comes to subsidizing studies that don’t necessarily lead to necessary jobs or gainful employment.
“At some level, I share a bias—and it can be a dangerous one—that is to the extent that economic value, or commodification of higher education, drives out Michelangelo and Shakespeare, there’s a loss,” Carnevale said. “And given tight budgets, the bottom line is usually the bottom line. The difficulty here is producing degrees and certificates that make people employable really is the priority in the public sector.”