How Much Is Your College Degree Worth? Let the Census Folks Tell You

Psychology tells us that human beings tend to overestimate themselves. We think we're smarter, more popular, and better at our jobs than any objective measure would suggest. So with that in mind, direct your attention to these neat charts tracking college majors and average lifetime earnings from the Census Bureau. They just might tell you something about your future (even if you secretly believe you're way above average).  

Here's what you need to know to read them. The Census folks calculate that your generic worker whose highest degree is a bachelor's makes $2.4 million total over 40 years. But what you actually earn is highly dependent both on what you study and what job you actually take. The job / major combinations in blue make more than the average. The ones in yellow are likely to make less. The ones in teal don't deviate enough to show a statistical difference. 

Census_Synthetic_Lifetime_Earnings_1.PNG

So no matter what type of job you're in, you'll probably make the most with an engineering degree. Computers and math also tend to over-perform. In, pretty much any degree, except maybe biology (included on the next chart) with a heavy science or math component tends to outperform the average on wages. But don't lose hope gender studies and comp-lit majors: If you make it into management somewhere, your earnings may also end up in the blue.

Census_Synthetic_Lifetime_Earnings_2.PNG

And for those looking for a bigger policy takeaway rather than help with their retirement planning, here's what I think should be salient: If we want to improve the earnings of educated women and minorities, it means getting more of them to study the math and science heavy fields in the first graph. No matter if they actually end up doing with their degree, chances are it'll be more valuable than if they go with the liberal arts. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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