What’s your degree worth?

It is often claimed that university graduates earn significantly more than those without higher education qualifications. But in the United States at least (and certainly on this side of the Atlantic also) not every degree has the same impact on earning power. The US journal Chronicle of Higher Education has published details of median earnings enjoyed by graduates from certain university degree programmes, and it is clear from the figures that some graduates are able to earn considerably more than others. The figures are median earnings, so that they do not represent the upper limits of earning power.

The highest median salaries, according to this list, are enjoyed by graduates of petroleum engineering ($120,000), while the lowest pay can be expected by graduates of counselling psychology ($29,000). Other degrees whose graduates are very good earners are pharmaceutical sciences ($105,000), computer science ($98,000) and aerospace engineering ($87,000). In fact, engineers overall are the highest earners. Other poorly paid graduates have degrees in theology ($38,000), social work ($39,000), botany ($42,000).

What this tells us is that some graduates can indeed fairly quickly command high salaries, but that other are far less likely to be able to covert their degrees into pay. While it is easy to see why petroleum engineers are in demand and thus well paid, it is harder to see the reason for either high or low pay in other professions that require higher education qualifications. Some of it is connected with the value that we, as a society, either do or do not attach to certain jobs.

Assuming the figures published in the Chronicle are not wholly out of line with the position in this part of the world, they should raise certain questions in the debate on university funding and tuition fees. If certain degrees don’t secure higher salaries, then the case for graduate contributions in those fields is weak. This might suggest that tuition fees (where they exist) should not be the same across all subject areas.

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8 Comments on “What’s your degree worth?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Might it not be a case for using good old supply and demand. Then fine arts and the lib’Arts would cost an arm and a leg thereby forcing people into the ‘harder’ engineering degrees.

  2. jfryar Says:

    I’m not sure any of it has to do with the value society associates with the job rather than simple market forces. There might be an argument in the public sector (everyone values the job nurses do, for example, yet their pay isn’t huge) but as long as nurses work for the pay offered, it’s unlikely to change. It does not seem to me to be the role of universities to evalute the potential earning power of individual graduates years after leaving college and retrospectively then determine the level of fees they should charge to maximise cash intake.

    Recent experience in England demonstrates that the ‘cost’ of a degree can be percieved as a measure of its ‘goodness’. My worry is that such a system would result in large numbers of people opting for cheaper degrees … we already have lots of students who chose courses based on the jobs and salaries they think they’ll get rather than any aptitude or interest in the subjects they have to learn.

    Plus, I would point out that the petroleum engineer earning $120,000 pays a substantial amount of tax.

  3. Niall Says:

    Is ‘Petroleum Engineering’ training while ‘theology’ and ‘botany’ are education? A degree in theology, botany or most arts and many science subjects does not lead directly to a career unlike degrees in engineeering, law or medicine.

    • jfryar Says:

      I’d argue no to your question. Yes, it might be easier to be a petroleum engineer with a petroleum engineering degree but at what ‘employability’ rating do you consider it training rather than education? Does every petroleum engineering graduate work for oil companies, or do some use their broader engineering knowledge in different companies? Presumably pumping oil out of the ground and chemically cracking it requires engineering knowledge that could be applied elsewhere so how many graduates ended up elsewhere?

      • Niall Says:

        I would imagine some petroleum engineering graduates end up working as other kinds of engineers or indeed outside of engineering altogether. However, petroleum engineering as a discipline would seem to include a large element of job-related training, unlike say history or physics


  4. Could it be “supply and demand”?

  5. kevin denny Says:

    In the halcyon days when we had fees in Ireland, higher fees were charged in science and medicine which were partly correlated with the returns – though the justification was costs. Business degrees cost the same as Arts I think.
    Charging the same fee across all subjects makes no sense. For that matter, who should all universities here have to charge the same unless you believe they are, by some amazing coincidence and against all evidence, equally good?


  6. Nice chart.

    These data are for full-time, full-year workers aged 25 to 64 whose highest degree is a bachelor’s, so (a) not very comparable with the UK DLHE survey 6 months after graduation and (b) will tend to be distorted by lower medians in fields where a PG qualification is a normal part of career development (look at the figure for ‘Health’).

    That said, where the median wage for ‘US History’ graduates is higher than ‘Computer programming and data processing’ there are clearly issues driving these data which are not strictly ‘professional’.


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