Study Shows Nonprofit Jobs a Low Paying Career Choice

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May 24, 2011; Source: Inside Higher Ed | Imagine that you’re a college freshman. What field do you want to pick for your major? Engineering? English? Accounting? Theology? Or how about human services work?

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has explored median salaries and career paths of 3 million college graduates from the last 40 years. The data represent a snapshot of salaries of graduates in 2009, graduates early in their careers, mid-career, and late career, disaggregated into 171 majors.

All of us liberal arts types didn’t do so well. The high end of the salary scale were people who majored in petroleum engineering, earning a median salary of $120,000. The bottom ranking major was counseling psychology majors earning $29,000.

The sciences and engineering all do pretty well, including aerospace engineering, mathematics and computer science, pharmaceutical sciences, chemical engineering, etc.

10 Majors with the Highest Median Earnings (no advanced degree)


Petroleum Engineering


Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences & Administration


Mathematics and Computer Science


Aerospace Engineering


Chemical Engineering


Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering


Mechanical Engineering


Metallurgical Engineering


Mining and Mineral Engineering


But what about the majors with the lowest median earnings? It is pretty obvious that the broad range of public service majors (and the visual and performing arts) don’t promise lucrative earnings. Tied for third from the bottom in the ranking is the human services and community organization major – tied with the theology and religious vocations.

10 Majors with the Lowest Median Earnings (no advanced degree)


Counseling Psychology


Early Childhood Education


Theology and Religious Vocations


Human Services and Community Organization


Social Work


Drama and Theater Arts


Studio Art


Communication Disorders Science and Service


Visual and Performing Arts


It will be absolutely no surprise to NPQ Newswire readers to learn that the low-paid majors are dominated by women and by racial minorities. For example, 97 percent of early childhood majors were women with the opportunity to earn a median wage of $36,000. But even in higher wage fields, such as chemical engineering, the median salary for men was $92,000 and for women $72,000.

African-Americans, according to the study, were “overrepresented in low-paying majors such as counseling, social work, and community organizing.” The study authors also found that graduates in high-wage majors had more job mobility to move to managerial and other well paid careers compared to teachers and social workers who were much more job immobile.

So should we all feel bad that we chose less lucrative majors? Was money the first thing on our minds when we wandered the halls of our colleges trying to figure out class schedules and dorm room assignments? There is no excuse for how poorly our nation values the work of people who are dedicated to helping and caring for others, but thank goodness that a large proportion of the population has sought lives of personal and societal fulfillment rather than focusing narrowly on compensation.—Rick Cohen

  • Brooks Kelley

    I work in Accounting for a non-profit and prepare the budgets. My son is doing an Engineering Internship at an auto company in Detroit, and even though he only has 1 1/2 years of schooling towards his degree, he is making the same as our Case Managers with Bachelors. His rate of pay actually was below what some of the other interns have paid in the past. By the way, my pay in the non-prfit field is way less than it would be in the Corporate World as I hold an MBA and a Masters in Accounting and Finance. I am in it for as much the intrinsic value of the benefit to society provided by non-profits. I have worked the Corporate side.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Brooks: Remember that the Georgetown study looked at median earnings for all of the people in the sample, so they were lumping in people like your son and people with much longer work histories (I guess on the assumption that the combination data sort of washes out the extremes in the end). Some of us love accountants who work in the nonprofit world!!!

  • Wendy Burtner Owens

    Sorry, but I have to say that this is another study for the “no kidding” bucket. It is not news. Most of us in the nonprofit sector have chosen to be here, despite knowing that we would make less. Let’s look deeper and find out WHY this is so, and if it is appropriate. And if not appropriate, what can be done to change it.

  • Scott

    I have worked in the human service field for over 29 years with a focus on supporting people with developmental disabilities. I am deeply committed to the people I serve and take great joy in seeing the accomplishments made for people to live in their communities. I started in an entry level positon, went on to get a BA in Special Education and a Masters in Management doing what I enjoy. I work in state government, however mid and senior manager in the non-profit sector are paid well with a combination of expereince and education. You have to follow your passion then the money will follow. As others have said, there is value in supporting others that goes beyond a paycheck. 🙂

  • Andrew Skeehan

    “There’s always a job for an engineer,
    A bonanza for any technician;
    We scour the country far and near,
    For the boys who are good at addition.

  • Navindra

    By knowing that development sector professionals are less paid, I am comfortable with serving the grass root level people. It makes me feeling good to be serving the humanity even though I am going through some finacial shortcomes. Been in Sri Lanka in poineering MFI & consultancy non for profit organization still I am getting susdtardard pay comparing with INGOs in the country. However, I strongly felt that peole who are works for human development feild should be much recognize and pay a matching wage perticularly for low & middle level managers. I clearly stated, that there is no corelation of disparity among top managers whatever the sector they employed but middle & low level managers paid less perticularly in the development sector. That cut off could give top mamagers to maintain their wage high perticularly in Sri lanka.

  • Scott

    There is more to life than money.
    A smile.
    A laugh
    A thank you.
    Knowing that when you leave this planet you have left behind a difference is worth more to me than a home on the hill and a fat wallet. Color me – duh!

  • Srdjan Lorencini

    Daer Sir,

    it is clear by now not everyones choice of work is based on how much you get for it. Last 11 years I am working with UK based charity and it makes me happy. At list most of time it does. But never is my frustration anything to do with my paycheck. Anyway, if you do not feel it it is hard to explain.
    On the other hand I often have to work with commercial companies and to meet their representatives. Lately we have influx of people who lost their jobs in commercial companies. Working here or with organization like mine is very hard. They do not get it. They do not get our requirements, they do not get environment, they do not get investment relationships in side organization. They generally have hard time in most of cases.
    It is clear why. This are different worlds.
    Advice is clear. If you car is not transport from A to B and if you work for money not just to pay bills. I am affraid none profit organizations are not a great place for you. Do not come near. You will not be happy.

    On the other hand I am not sure I understand you. Do you really think it is helpful choice of subject for noneprofitquorterly to tell me that study shows I am taking pay cut. Well. We all know that and majority of us are doing it with our eyes open. I kind of think now you do not get it and should write for different publication. This is suggestion. I could be wrong. Anyway I do not think there is a surprize that most of comments are on line “it is not all about money”.

    Take care : )


  • Chelsey Chen

    To be honest, as most other people have said here, people who join the non profit sector do not do so expecting to make tons of money. Would we like to be given a living wage, yes, but quite often even that does not happen. What I would like to draw everyone’s attention to in this article is at the end when the author talks about the proportion that women and minorities have in the lower paying jobs vs the higher paying jobs. The fact that these low paying jobs are dominated by women and minorities is just as much true do to their lack of opportunity and resources as it is by their desire for those jobs. That is the real issue here, not that social jobs are paid less but who is in those jobs and why. Is it because that’s where they really want to be? or because they did not have the opportunity to go anywhere else?


    I believe even though our career is low paying it is one of the most important especially in Africa to prevent the break down of our societies. It is the type that need people who have a heart and passion for the community and not the money that you earn.Non profit sector is the best and i look forward to making impact in people’s lives that getting much money minus the impact.