With the economy still struggling along and a price of a college degree outpacing ordinary inflation, more and more personal finance experts are suggesting that students choose a major based on its earning potential. And true to form, this year’s American Community Survey data shows that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees continue to promise much higher incomes than even business degrees. And so today, instead of interviewing someone about how they use math in their job, I thought I’d take a look at this data.
In 2011, 59 million Americans (25 years and older) held bachelor’s degrees. The most popular degree is business (20%), with education coming in second (12%). In fact, those with business degrees were the most likely to be employed. But here’s where the rubber hits the road: those with engineering degrees continue to out-earn business majors by about $25,000 a year (based on median salaries).
Yes, you read that right.
And the hits keep coming (again, based on median salaries): those with mathematics, computer science or statistics degrees earn $13,000 more each year, as do those with physical science degrees. Even if a STEM degree holder was not working in that humanities degree holders were (naturally) at the low end of the earning potential, along with education,
But money isn’t everything. Those in STEM careers are more likely be employed in full-time, year-round jobs. (Curiously, teachers aren’t considered year-round employees, which I think skews the data somewhat.) The mathy/sciencey types are also less likely to be unemployed.
I am not one to suggest that someone get a degree merely for the earning potential. If you don’t want to be an engineer, don’t major in that field. It sounds a little woo-woo, but I firmly believe in the general idea that we should all be following our bliss (and being smart about what that means financially).
Where I think this data matters — big time — is much farther down the educational ladder. Students who learn to love (or at least appreciate) STEM subjects are much more likely to consider these as a field of study. On the other hand, many of you can personally attest to the fact that it’s hard to fall in love with these subjects — and play catch up with the concepts and foundation needed to excel in them — when you’ve learned to hate them or have zero confidence in your abilities.
In other words, the work starts in elementary and middle school. For students reach their real earning potential and for employers to find qualified experts for the jobs that they do have, we really must make STEM a priority in these grades. That doesn’t mean more testing or introducing concepts at a younger age. (In my opinion, those strategies are counterproductive.) It means finding truly gifted STEM teachers who are able to motivate their students and overcome our epidemic of mathematics anxiety and general apathy towards the subject. It means approaching STEM subjects with excitement and a sense of discovery. It means encouraging, not discouraging, exploration in these subjects.
So I ask you: What are you doing to help with this?
Interested in how things broke down numerically? Here are a few median salaries from the American Community Survey:
- Engineering, $91,611
- Computers, mathematics, statistics, $80,180
- Physical and related sciences, $80,037
- Business, $66,605
- Literature and languages, $58,616
- Education, $50,902
- Visual and performing arts, $50,484
What do you think? Should college students choose a degree based on earning potential? Or should they “follow their bliss”? How can schools help students develop an interest in the fields that offer a higher earning potential? Share your comments!