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The federal government began publishing average wage statistics for recent graduates of most American colleges through the College Scorecard in 2015. In 2020, the Education Department expanded Scorecard data to include average wage statistics by both institution and field of study. (“Only data from students who received federal financial aid are included in the calculation,” the Scorecard notes.) And so average-wage-by-major statistics were added to the list of metrics that students can use to determine where to attend college and what to study.
For example, students at the University of California at Irvine can see that graduates with geology degrees (via the institution’s department of earth system science) have median annual earnings of $48,955 three years after graduating, which is about $1,500 more than the median salary at the same point for Irvine history majors. Wage gaps between majors tend to grow even larger as students attain more experience in the labor market. A student considering both majors, and hoping to increase their lifetime earnings, might naturally wonder if earth system science would be the wiser choice.
For students, this is only the latest consideration among a sea of decisions around their college education. They also had to figure out how important it was to attend a slightly higher-ranked university (not very, in terms of future earnings), and whether they would have to pay colleges’ astronomical posted tuition prices to attend those schools (probably not).
But average-wage-by-major statistics are especially difficult to interpret. Consider that $1,500 average wage difference between graduates of history and of earth system science at UC-Irvine. Maybe history is a relatively “low-financial-value postsecondary program,” to use the federal government’s phrasing for programs that don’t serve their students well. But there are many other explanations for its lower average wages.
One likely possibility is that the students who choose to study earth system science at UC-Irvine have academic preparation — particularly in math and quantitative reasoning — that exceeded their history-major peers even before they choose the major. Irvine’s policies put up stricter barriers to majoring in the sciences than they do in the humanities: Only students with a GPA of 2.5 or better in Irvine courses that count toward the major are permitted to declare an earth system science major, whereas a GPA of 2.0 in humanities courses is good enough to declare the history major. Students with poor high-school science training may find it difficult to qualify for scientific majors.
GPA-based major restrictions are widely prevalent across the U.S., and prospective college students should pay close attention to them when deciding which college to attend. My research has shown that at public R1 universities, about 50 percent of all majors (weighted by number of students) — and 75 percent of high-wage majors like engineering and economics — impose major-restriction policies, which tend to disproportionately exclude lower-income and otherwise-disadvantaged students from those fields. But GPA-based major restrictions also make it challenging to learn about majors’ economic value just by looking at the average wages of their graduates. One reason that Irvine’s earth system science majors earn high wages might just be that the students who are permitted to earn the major have pre-existing skills advantages that would have lifted their wages regardless of their choice of major.
Prohibiting low-GPA students from earning a major would also tend to raise the average wage of the major’s graduates in any degree, even in a field like history. If that explains the wage difference, then switching from history into earth system science may have no effect on earnings success.
In Norway, students directly apply to specific majors on their college application and are admitted only to a single program. Because students submit their rank-ordered preference list across their most-preferred college majors, the researchers were able to study two particularly interesting groups of students: those who prefer to study the humanities but are admitted to a less-preferred science degree, and those who prefer to study science but are admitted to a humanities degree. When the economists examined the wages of these two groups 10 years later, they found a striking pattern: Both groups of students were worse off than their otherwise-similar peers who were able to study their first-choice major.
Pushing students from science into the humanities tended to decrease their later-life wages — that’s not surprising. But the converse also appeared to be true: Pushing students from the humanities into science also tended to, if anything, decrease their wages. While there are certain very high-paying majors (like engineering, economics, and computer science) that increase students’ earning potential even if they would prefer to study something else, helping students to study their most-preferred major generally seems to provide long-run financial benefits even in the humanities.
There are some “low financial value” bad actors in higher ed, particularly in the for-profit sector, and the government’s increasing attempts to publicly shame them using the College Scorecard may improve some students’ education and outcomes. There are also many university degrees with smaller financial returns — like early-childhood education B.A.s and master of social work degrees — that society needs and that students continue acquiring out of personal commitments to socially valuable occupations. But leaving aside very low-wage programs, students should know that when it comes to choosing a college degree, small differences in average-wage-by-major statistics shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Especially when the average wage differences between majors are not very big, students should put their own strengths first and not let the statistics cloud their understanding of their own interests.