What’s It Not Worth? The Real Value of Post-Secondary Majors

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently highlighted a major report released by the Georgetown center, titled “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” detailing significant earnings data for 171 different college majors in the U.S. At first glance, it’s a pretty convincing read, but it doesn’t take long to find some pretty big holes.

The report looked at data from a U.S. Census and calculated median salaries for people who have the same college major. The author, being dissatisfied with the current debate happening over the value of a university degree, decided to look beyond the degree itself and instead ask what majors appear to have the most earning power. Surprise, surprise: engineering, computing science, business and health majors came out on top. On the other end of the spectrum, humanities, arts, education and psychology round out the bottom of the earnings scale.

But this is merely a quantification of an assumption that most people seem to be operating on already. There aren’t too many psychology or education majors going into it for the money, let’s put it that way.

The good news is that regardless of major, a university degree was shown to increase lifetime earnings by 74% compared to those with only a high school diploma. The exception, of course, being those with a bachelor’s in counselling psychology, who were found to actually earn less than their diploma-only counterparts.

Upon reading that, a small part of me died inside. As a professional holding a bachelor’s degree in psychology (and probably earning a salary not far off from the median given in the report), I experienced a fleeting moment of sadness on my bus ride to work this morning. Even if the report paints an inaccurate picture (the report only considers bachelor’s degrees, and 70% of counselling psychology bachelor’s earners go on to a master’s degree or higher to pursue specific careers), what did I really care about some report on the dollar figures associated with an incredibly large number of career paths?

For the most part, people know which majors are more likely to lead to a higher paycheck. I knew that engineering or business could have led to a higher paying career, but I also knew that I would hate doing that kind of work. I probably wouldn’t even have been able to get through a degree in one of those subjects, because I just couldn’t see myself caring about them enough to put in the requisite amount of effort to succeed academically. When I took my first psychology class, I realized it was the only thing I’d studied that I found interesting enough to devote myself and my major to.

So that’s really what it’s about for me—not a question of “what’s it worth,” but rather a question of “what’s it not worth?” What sacrifices are you willing to make? How many statistics classes are you willing to put up with (I regret to report that I’ve had to take 3, over the course of my undergraduate and graduate studies)?

Collectively, we need to get over this obsession with whether degrees are worth it, and for that matter whether specific majors are worth it, in terms of their monetary value years down the line. I and many of my colleagues see the un-reported consequences of this kind of thinking on an almost daily basis, in the form of students who’ve pursued a certain major, either by their own or their parents’ insistence that it will lead to a high paying career, and found themselves in significant academic difficulty—often to the point of being placed on academic probation or even being asked to withdraw from the university. The idea that they can study something else—something they actually like—is like a revelation to a lot of these students. And (surprise, surprise) many of them go on to successfully complete their degree in a new field of study, even if it’s in the salary no-man’s land of the arts, education or psychology.

So, what’s it not worth? What are your values, your interests, your passions? What majors get in the way of those? That’s a report I’d like to read.

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