Resources & Publications

What's a College Degree Worth?

May 26, 2011

By Elizabeth Kenefick

Not all degrees are worth the same - or sometimes anywhere close. That's the finding in a new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, What's it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors, which compares earning potentials across 171 majors and may be a valuable tool for helping students exploring career options. In some cases, the difference can be as high as more than 300 percent.  While the report only focuses on bachelors and graduate degrees, it is a step in helping understand the relationship between postsecondary education fields of study and career earnings potential.  Given historically high tuition and increasing student debt, information like this can aid students as they choose to invest in higher education.

This first-time research was made possible by changes the U.S. Census Bureau made to the American Community Survey (ACS).  The 2009 ACS asked individuals to supply their undergraduate major if they indicated that their degree was a bachelor's degree or higher.  The responses were then coded and collapsed into 171 different degree majors.  The report analyzed the new information and provide details on median earnings and earnings variations among typical workers and then by gender and race/ethnicity.  They also examined which occupations and industries employ the most workers with various majors, as well as employment and work status by major.

What's it Worth? follows a previous report by the Center on Education and the Workforce, which found that while bachelor's degrees overall have a higher economic value, this relationship does not always hold true when broken down by industry and occupational choice.  They found that 27 percent of licenses and certificates and 31 percent of associate degrees earn more than a bachelor's degree.

These reports will hopefully lead to deeper analysis of associate degrees, certificate programs, and non-degree credentials.  As U.S. Department of Education projections show that the share of minorities in higher education programs will increase and the share of adults over the age of 25 will continue to make up almost half of the student population in coming years, information on degree and non-degree earning postsecondary education will help the nation develop systems that can better meet the needs of varied student populations.  An increase in information on and access to postsecondary education is important for helping workers and families move out of poverty and into economic security.

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