A new report from the University of Texas System and the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analyzed the economic ramifications of a student’s college choice, finding that the major the student selects may be more predictive of future economic success than the particular college in which they’ve enrolled.
“As is the case in our national research, the major that UT System graduates pursued in college is the biggest predictor of wage outcomes,” researchers wrote in Major Matters Most: The Economic Value of Bachelor’s Degrees from The University of Texas System. “To a lesser extent, institutional selectivity also explains some differences in earnings across the UT System. However, there is an ongoing debate about whether the institution a student attends really matters in determining future earnings.”
Researchers analyzed a sample of 50,984 UT System graduates who received bachelor’s degrees between 2008 and 2011, using datasets to match graduates with their accompanying degrees with career and wage data. The report indicated a $40,000 median gap between earnings of graduates from the top-earning majors (architecture and engineering) and graduates with majors in biology and life sciences, the lowest-earning degrees among UT grads. The report also found a $3.4 million difference in earnings between majors over the course of a lifetime, far surpassing the lifetime earnings gap between college and high school graduates.
There is evidence to suggest that graduating from any school with particular majors could outweigh the benefits of attending a "top" school with a less valued degree; researchers found students who graduated from open-access schools in the UT system with majors that lead to high earnings have a leg up over graduates from selective schools with low-earning majors — architecture and engineering graduates from open-access schools in the system had median incomes more than 61% higher than all graduates of selective colleges.
The analysis indicates that open-access or mid-tier schools endeavoring to offer a better return on investment on earnings in students’ post-college career can do so by instituting programs and degrees with significant earnings for graduates, as well as strengthening those programs that already exist.
There are indications that institutions are already working to keep pace with an increased student interest in STEM majors and degrees that tend to offer high ROIs in post-college careers; one 2014 report found that STEM student enrollment had spiked in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and there has been continued support from a bipartisan cadre of local, state and federal lawmakers as well as education officials to boost STEM programs for K-12 and higher ed in order to close increasingly fearsome qualified applicant gaps in certain fields. Still, in a recent Education Dive interview, one cybersecurity expert said there were more openings for cybersecurity jobs alone than there were total computer science graduates each year.
As higher ed institutions continue to navigate the need to build out programs with this increased interest, they can feel more confidence in investing resources and staff into such programs, confident that student interest will match the investment. Despite the inclination to open programs geared towards social justice, institutions should work closely with state officials to ensure new program offerings are aligning with workforce needs and will produce graduates in high-demand fields. Students, and even funders, may be drawn to the more social work, but an ability to demonstrate ROI in terms of future earnings will do more to concretely draw students to campus, and increase public support for the institution.
Questions still remain
The report indicated that further research could be beneficial to shed light on questions that data was unable to answer conclusively, including whether earning a Bachelor’s degree in particular fields helps to close the gaps that arise for students facing challenges stemming from coming for a low-income background. Additionally, the research did note disparities; while black and Latino UT System graduates made about $6,000 less per year than their white and Asian peers (which the report noted was consistent with nationwide trends), the report found that disparities in earnings between different races and ethnicities tended to be larger in higher-paying majors.
With the report indicating that lower percentages of black and Latino students were graduating with degrees in architecture and engineering, it serves as a reminder that as higher ed administrations build out programs leaning into high-earning fields, they must be cognizant that their approach helps to lower disparities between differing demographics, not exacerbate them.