According to a new report, a college degree is well worth it in terms of lifetime earnings. But, the study's authors noted, not all degrees are worth the same amount: A student's chosen major has critical, far-reaching consequences.
"The core finding here is that going to college and getting a degree is important, but what you major in can be three or four times more important." said Anthony P. Carnevale, who co-authored the study and directs Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. "The difference in earnings is more than 300 percent."
Utilizing previously unreported data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey, the study authors sampled 3 million college graduates between 25 and 64 who had reported their undergraduate major and subsequent salary to arrive at their findings.
"There's this tendency in this country to say, 'I'm going to college. I made it,'" said Carnevale. "Well, yes, you've made it to a point. But the most important decision to come is what to major in."
Titled "What's It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors," the study indicates that the earnings disparity between different college majors is substantial. In terms of yearly earnings, petroleum engineers reported making $120,000, while college counselors and psychologists earned an average of $29,000. Over the course of a lifetime, this translated into petroleum engineers making $5 million, while counselors and psychologists earned approximately $2 million.
Of the 171 majors included in the report, engineering, computer science and business reported the highest salaries. Lower earnings were reported in fields such as education, social work and counseling -- though they all made about 75 to 85 percent more than individuals with only a high school degree.
The study also found a significant earnings gap by gender, race and ethnicity.
"In the case of African Americans, in not one of the 171 majors were they making as much or more than white people," said Carnevale. "For women, in only three of the included majors -- physiology, computer science and pharmacology -- did they out-earn their male counterparts."
While the ultimate value of college may well be worth it for degree-holders, the majority of Americans now bristle at the increasing cost.
Last week, the Pew Research Center released a survey that asked whether or not college was worth it. Of the more than 2,000 people surveyed, 57 percent claim that higher education fails to provide adequate value in return for increasingly high costs. Further, 75 percent said that college is too costly for the average citizen to afford.
Despite its high cost, Carnevale still believes a college degree is unequivocally worth it.
"A college degree is still the threshold requirement for access to the middle and upper middle class," said Carnevale. "But access to the upper class now depends on your major."
Both Carnevale and his colleague, Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, caution current college students with giving the choice of major careful consideration.
Specifically, he advises students to be better informed about the future weight of the decision they're about to make.
"Rather than following the whimsy of what their friends are doing or what their parents want them to do, they need to understand the choice they're making," said Van Horn, who also directs Rutgers' John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. "Pre-school teachers don't make $150,000, investment bankers do. The choice of major is especially critical now when the labor market is so very competitive."