Question of the Day: What college major provides graduates with the highest median CAREER earnings?

Nov 08, 2017
Question of the Day, Paying for College, Chart of the Week, Career, Research

Answer: Chemical Engineering with median lifetime earnings of about $4 million

From NY Times:

Awesome article that dispels common myths about the college major. Here's one of my favorite myth-busters highlighting the variance in a given major:

"It’s true that computer science and engineering top all the pay rankings, but salaries within specific majors vary greatly. “Students and parents have a pretty good idea of what majors pay the most, but they have a poor sense of the magnitude of the differences within the major,” said Douglas A. Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University who studies earnings by academic field. He points to one example: The top quarter of earners who majored in English make more over their lifetimes than the bottom quarter of chemical engineers. But what if you never make it to the top of the pay scale? Even English or history graduates who make just above the median lifetime earnings for their major do pretty well when compared to typical graduates in business or a STEM field."


  • Have you given much thought to a college major? If so, do any of the majors in the chart interest you?
  • How would you describe the majors that rank highest in terms of median career earnings? What similarities do they have?
  • Roughly, what is the range of career earnings for General Business majors between the 10th and 90th percentile? What do you think accounts for the range of outcomes for a given major?
  • Your friend says, "You better choose a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) major because they are the only ones with earnings potential. Do you agree or disagree?

Here's the ready-to-go slides for this Question of the Day that you can use in your classroom.


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About the Author

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.