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College Majors May Not Be as Important as You Think

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College students and their parents should not obsess over undergraduate college majors because the bigger determinants of earnings after college are the jobs they get.

For example, English majors who become managers earn a median salary of $77,000, while their counterparts who become elementary and middle school teachers earn $51,000, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project on career paths after college. But the percentage of English majors who become teachers is more than twice that of those who become managers: 8.3% vs. 3.4%, which may indicate the availability of possible career paths for various majors.

“Different career paths and the associated earnings differences for students with the same college major are pervasive and important for understanding both the benefits of college majors and of college itself,” the report finds. “Differences in occupation account for a substantial fraction of variation in earnings.”

But occupational differences are only part of the story. What college graduates earn over the course of their careers is a function of multiple variables including gender and age. Using the interactive part of the Brookings study shows that the most common jobs for male English major graduates aged 25 to 34 are lawyers and judges, elementary and middle school teachers, editors and reporters, first-line supervisors of sales workers and postsecondary teachers.

The lawyers and judges are the least popular in the list, accounting for between 20% and 30% of those graduates, but they pay the most – a median $80,000; the postsecondary teachers are the most common but pay a median salary of just under $28,000. They are most likely adjunct professors, without full-time tenure.

The most common professions for female English major graduates, aged 25 to 34, are lawyers and judges, secondary school teachers, elementary and middle school teachers, secretaries and administrative assistants and postsecondary teachers, in ascending order. Secretaries and administrative assistants have apparently replaced first line supervisors (for male graduates) as among the most common post-college jobs for women, and salaries overall are much lower compared to those of their male counterparts: a median $61,700 for female lawyers andjudges and just $23,000 for female postsecondary teachers.

The study found that in professions that both male and female college graduates commonly pursue, the salary gap increases with age, up through 55. Women in the 25-34 age bracket earn 23% less than their male counterparts but 36% less when they’re 35 to 44 years old and 39% less when they’re age 45 to 54. Between 55 and 64 years of age the gap contracts to 33%.

The Brookings report, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, also found that in most fields, a large majority of graduates are not working in the most common occupations in their fields, and no matter what the college major, graduates who work as financial managers typically earn more money than most other professions. 

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