What does your degree matter? Millions of dollars over time

US Census Bureau looks at how your degree choice impacts your lifetime earnings

Over the course of a working career, the type of degree you have can be worth millions of more dollars to your bottom line.

The US Census Bureau this week came out a with a couple of first-time studies that show people with higher level technical or engineering degrees can on average make over $3 million more during their lifetimes than those who graduated with majors in the arts, humanities and education.

The "Work-Life Earnings by Field of Degree and Occupation for People With a Bachelor's Degree: 2011," report looked at  the " relationship between how far one goes in school and how much money one might make over the course of a 40-year career (from age 25 to 64)."

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"The brief shows that education pays off in a big way, with estimated work-life earnings ranging from $936,000 for those with less than a high school education to $4.2 million for people with professional degrees.  Even within one level of attainment ─ bachelor's ─ the combination of what one chooses to study in college and the careers pursued afterward can make a difference almost equally as large. For instance, engineering majors who are in management earn $4.1 million during their work-life. At the other extreme, arts majors and education majors who were service workers make an estimated $1.3 million."

People who majored in engineering had the highest earnings at $92,000 per year. They were also the most likely to be employed in the private sector (78%). Majors with the lowest overall median annual earnings, about $55,000 or less per year, included such fields as visual and performing arts,   communications, education, and psychology, the Census Bureau found. 

A second study, "Field of Degree and Earnings by Selected Employment Characteristics: 2011," looked at the relationship between the field of bachelor's degrees, median annual earnings, and the likelihood of full-time employment.  For example, people who majored in a science and engineering field were more likely to be employed full-time, year-round. So too were those who majored in business, the most common field of study, the study found.  Sixty-four percent of business majors were full-time, year-round workers. On the other hand, the same was true of less than half of those who majored in literature and languages or visual and performing arts.

In addition to business, people who majored in computers, mathematics, and statistics, or majored in engineering were the most likely to report working full-time, year-round and among the least likely to report that they did not work at all. In contrast, most fields that were classified as arts, humanities, or other had lower rates of full-time, year-round employment. Less than half of those who majored in literature and languages (46%) or visual and performing arts (48%) were employed full-time, year-round.

Other findings included:

-- Different occupations provided different earnings even with the same major field of study. Among people whose highest degree is a bachelor's, liberal arts majors working in computer- and mathematics-related occupations have median work-life earnings of $2.9 million, while liberal arts majors working in office support occupations have earnings of $1.6 million.

 -- People whose bachelor's degree was in engineering were the most likely to be working in the private sector in 2011. Education majors were most likely to be working for government (which includes public schools).

-- Among workers who finished their schooling with a bachelor's degree - no matter what they majored in - those working for wage or salary had higher median earnings than those who were employed by themselves or in their own business. However, workers with master's, professional or doctorate degrees had higher median earnings with self-employment if their bachelor's degrees were in certain fields. People with a bachelor's in science and engineering who went on to earn a higher degree had median annual self-employment earnings of about $100,000, while their median annual wage-and-salary earnings were $90,000.

Both studies are part of the Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) a nationwide sampling of some 3.3 million addresses.

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