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