Sunday, August 1, 2004

Careers depend on what you study, not where, authors say

By Justin Fenton
Enquirer staff writer
Top earnings by major

Memo to high school students and undeclared college students:

Choosing a college major may be more important than the choice of a college for future earnings and employment success, according to a new book by labor market specialists at Northeastern University in Boston.

"When parents and high school principals and teachers and students are thinking about post-secondary education, they spend a lot of energy thinking about where to go to school," said Paul Harrington, an economist at Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies and a co-author of the College Majors Handbook, Second Edition (JIST Works/$24.95), released last month.

"But at least as important, and maybe more important, is what you study in college. The economic returns vary enormously."

There is little evidence, the authors write, that earning a degree from an elite college by itself improves long-term employment and earnings prospects. After accounting for basic skills proficiency and undergraduate major field of study, the authors say graduates from elite colleges earn only 2 percent to 3 percent more over their lives than graduates from "non-elite" colleges.

"While parents judge colleges by their relative rankings,'' they write, "the labor market largely judges college graduates on the basis of their work experiences."

Skilled areas such as engineering have the highest payoff, claiming seven of the top eight average earnings and ranging from $66,000 to $75,000 annually for full-time college graduates with a bachelor's degree.

The lowest earners are elementary education, special education and social work, at about $38,000.

Elvin Stepp, the department head of the College of Computer and Electrical Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, said students who are willing to put up with the rigors of the difficult fields will see payoffs in a buyer's market.

"You can get a good education at a lot of places," he said. "In an undergraduate sense, most places that are accredited are essentially very, very similar. It doesn't have to be Harvard."

Harrington said students shouldn't focus just on economic returns. If children can realize their career goals and begin to gather basic skills - even in high school, he said - they will be better prepared when they get out of college.

"What you do in high school is going to have a powerful effect on your long-term ability," he said. "These things really matter."

Just going to college is more important than ever, he said. The difference between a college graduate's earnings and a high school graduate's earnings have soared from 24.7 percent in 1967 to 66.6 percent in 2001.

The book, which contains information on college majors, jobs, earnings and trends, is the result of a study of 150,000 college students.


Top annual earnings of college graduates with only a bachelor's degree :

• Chemical engineering: $75,579

• Aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering: $73,605

• Computer systems engineering: $70,084

• Physics and astronomy: $69,612

• Electrical and electronics engineering: $68,977

• Mechanical engineering: $68,806

• Industrial engineering: $68,411

• Civil engineering: $66,126

• Economics: $64,016

• Pharmacy: $63,967

Source: The College Majors Handbook

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