Major decisions: What graduates earn over their lifetimes (2023)

Major decisions: What graduates earn over their lifetimes (1)

Up Front

Kristen Broady and Brad Hershbein

    In late 2014, The Hamilton Project released two economic analyses and interactives on the earnings of college graduates by major: one set that showed career earnings profiles and lifetime earnings and another that showed an undergraduate student loan repayment calculator.

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    Kristen Broady

    Former Brookings Expert

    Policy Director, The Hamilton Project

    Fellow, Economic Studies

    Both were—and still are—very popular because they provide useful and actionable information to college students who are trying to make choices that will affect them for years. To remain useful, these data needed a refresh. We have updated the data in both interactives to use earnings from 2014-18, and we have also expanded the number of majors available from 80 to 98. The updated interactives can be accessed on The Hamilton Project website: career earnings profiles and lifetime earnings and undergraduate student loan repayment calculator).

    With just a few small differences, many conclusions from the initial economic analysis still hold. First, a college degree – in any major – is important for advancing one’s earnings potential (see figure 1).

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    Major decisions: What graduates earn over their lifetimes (4)​​​​​Major decisions: What graduates earn over their lifetimes (5)

    • The earnings profile of bachelor’s degree graduates (with no additional education) is uniformly above that of associate degree graduates. The typical, or median, bachelor’s degree graduate earns about $68,000 (in 2018 dollars) at career peak (which occurs at year 30) and the typical associate degree graduate earns $49,000 at career peak (at year 33). In turn, the median earnings for associate degree graduates is uniformly above that of high school graduates.
    • Median earnings of bachelor’s degree graduates are higher than median earnings of high school graduates for all 98 majors studied. This is true at career entry and mid-career. It is also true with two exceptions—early childhood education as well as visual and performing arts—at end of career.
    • Median earnings of bachelor’s degree graduates are at least as high as median earnings for associate degree holders—again, throughout the career—for the vast majority of majors; the exceptions are certain arts-related majors in early career; education majors and human-services majors in mid-career; and all three of these groups of majors in late career.

    Figure 2 below shows the distribution of cumulative earnings[i] over the entire career, with the green line marking the distribution for bachelor’s degree graduates (averaged for all majors), and the blue, purple, and orange lines showing the respective distributions for workers with an associate’s degree, some college without a degree, and only a high school diploma (or GED).

    Major decisions: What graduates earn over their lifetimes (6)Major decisions: What graduates earn over their lifetimes (7)

    Median career earnings for a bachelor’s degree holder are $1.28 million in 2018 dollars. This marks a gain of between 1 and 2 percent, after accounting for inflation, from our 2014 analysis. At the median, career earnings for a bachelor’s degree graduate are more than twice as high as for someone with only a high school diploma or GED, roughly 70 percent higher than for someone with some college but no degree, and more than 45 percent higher than for someone with an associate degree. These relationships do not hold for all workers: some workers without a bachelor’s degree have higher career earnings than some workers with a bachelor’s degree, including some workers with bachelor’s degrees in the highest-earning majors.

    Second, lifetime earnings vary significantly by major.

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    • For the median bachelor’s degree graduate, cumulative lifetime earnings for workers across majors range from $770,000 (early childhood education) to $2.28 million (aerospace engineering). This is a slightly larger range than in the original analysis, driven by gains in aerospace engineering.
    • It is still true that majors that emphasize quantitative reasoning tend to have graduates with the highest lifetime earnings. The five highest-earning majors (at the median) are all in engineering fields: aerospace, followed by energy and extraction, chemical and biological, computer, and electrical.
    • Majors that train students to work with children or provide counseling services tend to have graduates with the lowest earnings. The five lowest-earning majors (at the median) are communication disorders sciences and services, visual and performing arts, human services and community organization, studio arts and early childhood education.
    • Earnings can also vary tremendously within major. Consider, for example, those with a bachelor’s degree who majored in economics. Such graduates at the 10th percentile of career earnings take in $490,000, at the median, $1.74 million, and at the 90th percentile, $5.09 million. That is, the top tenth of economics graduates earn more than ten times over their career what the bottom tenth earns.

    Third, it can still be a challenge in early career to service the typical $27,000 in debt among new bachelor’s degree graduates who borrowed for their education, although there has been some improvement since the original analysis. You can find this interactive here.

    Major decisions: What graduates earn over their lifetimes (8)Major decisions: What graduates earn over their lifetimes (9)

    • For a typical college graduate who borrowed, the standard 10-year repayment plan at today’s interest rates imply a monthly payment of $258. In the first year of the career, this amounts to 12.7 percent of earnings——but by year 10, the monthly payment is only 6.3 percent of earnings.
    • In the original analysis, the respective shares were 14.1 percent and 6.5 percent. The recent declines are due to increases in early career earnings, slower growth in the typical amount borrowed, and lower interest rates.
    • Some majors carry greater risk than others in terms of likely difficulty in making loan payments. Graduates in drama and theater arts, for example, can expect to pay over 10 percent of earnings for the first six years in a standard repayment plan (including more than 20 percent in the first year), whereas computer science graduates will typically pay less than 8 percent of earnings in each year of repayment.
    • Graduates who earn less than the typical amount within their major are also at elevated risk of having trouble under a standard repayment plan. Computer science graduates with earnings at the 25th percentile (with one-quarter earning less and three-quarters earning more) can expect to pay more than 10 percent of earnings in their first two years of repayment; drama and theater arts graduates can expect to pay more than 10 percent of earnings in every year of repayment.

    Income-driven repayment plans may make sense for a large number of college graduates who borrowed, especially if the amount borrowed was greater than typical or if earnings are lower than expected in early career—particularly during recessions that make finding a good job match harder.

    Conclusion

    For many years, The Hamilton Project has produced data interactives that help young people make decisions regarding their education and careers. Today we have provided an update to Major Decisions, which helps undergraduates learn about career earnings profiles and lifetime earnings and how this relates to student loan repayment.

    Putting Your Major to Work links college majors to careers and shows the most common jobs, employment rates, and earnings by major and occupation. In Where Work Pays: Occupations and Earnings across the United States, people can see how typical earnings in occupations vary across the United States, and how these earnings are affected by cost of living and tax differences in different places. These data interactives and accompanying research provide useful information at critical junctures and illuminate the implications of human capital investments that last a lifetime.

    Endnotes

    [i] All cumulative earnings are calculated using a 3 percent annual discount rate. This converts earnings into a “present value,” the amount that if invested today at a 3 percent annual rate of return would yield the same total value as lifetime earnings.

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    Technical appendix is available here.

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    Related Topics

    • Education
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    FAQs

    How much more do graduates earn over lifetime? ›

    Men with bachelor's degrees earn approximately $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with bachelor's degrees earn $630,000 more. Men with graduate degrees earn $1.5 million more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates.

    Which degree will provide the most lifetime earnings? ›

    Engineering majors also earn the highest median wages mid-career. Chemical engineering graduates ages 35 to 45 make a median wage of $111,000.
    ...
    Top majors with highest median wages
    • General Engineering: $62,000.
    • Economics: $60,000.
    • Construction Services: $60,000.
    • Business Analytics: $60,000.
    • Finance: $60,000.
    • Physics: $55,000.
    26 Apr 2022

    Why do graduates earn more? ›

    Graduates are more likely to work in high-skilled posts than non-graduates. Therefore, allowing them to earn more as soon as they finish their degree.

    What majors make the most money in the future? ›

    10 college majors that make the most money
    • Business.
    • Economics.
    • Accounting.
    • Biomedical engineering.
    • Mathematics or Statistics.
    • Finance.
    • Nursing.
    • Information technology.

    How much a person can earn in his lifetime? ›

    You might be surprised!

    But a new report from Zippia, a career information site, found that the average person earns nearly $2.7 million over their lifetime. According to the most recent Census data, the average earner's income rises through their mid-forties before it plateaus until retirement.

    How much money do people make over their lifetime? ›

    During their working life, the average annual income will be close to $83,000, while the total cumulative earnings over 20 years will reach $1,650,000.

    What is the most successful degree? ›

    Saving money during and after college
    RankDeclared degreePercent with advanced degree
    1Architectural Engineering29%
    2Construction Services12%
    3Computer Engineering40%
    4Aerospace Engineering51%
    35 more rows
    4 Oct 2021

    What is the most beneficial degree to have? ›

    Most In-Demand Degrees
    1. Pharmacology. For a lucrative career helping people, pharmacology is at the top of the list for in-demand degrees. ...
    2. Computer Science. ...
    3. Health Science. ...
    4. Information Technology. ...
    5. Engineering. ...
    6. Business Administration. ...
    7. Finance. ...
    8. Human Resources.

    What is the most successful major? ›

    Top 10 Highest Paid Majors (Undergraduate)
    • Petroleum Engineering. Early Career Pay: $92,300. ...
    • Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration. ...
    • Mining and Mineral Engineering. ...
    • Chemical Engineering. ...
    • Electrical Engineering. ...
    • Computer Engineering. ...
    • Geological and Geophysical Engineering. ...
    • Drama and Theater Arts.

    What makes graduates more employable? ›

    a set of achievements – skills, understandings and personal attributes – that makes graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen occupations, which benefits themselves, the workforce, the community and the economy.”

    Do people with a degree earn more? ›

    The average lifetime earnings gain from undergraduate degrees is substantial for both men and women, but much smaller than the difference between the gross earnings of graduates and non-graduates.

    What is the benefit of earning a degree? ›

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ​workers with higher levels of education “typically earn more and have lower rates of unemployment compared with workers who have less education.” Over a lifetime, reports show that college graduates will make 84 percent more than those with a high school diploma.

    What is a major that makes a lot of money? ›

    With focus areas including electrical, mechanical, petroleum, chemical, civil, computer, and aerospace, these majors pay well upon graduation and increase at a high rate as you gain experience over time. Check out our Engineering Degree Path for helpful tips on how to get started in this lucrative career.

    What majors will always be in demand? ›

    The 10 Most In-Demand Majors of 2022
    • Engineering.
    • Business.
    • Nursing.
    • Hospitality.
    • Education.
    • Computer Science.
    • Architecture.
    • Pharmaceutical Sciences.

    How can I make the most money in my lifetime? ›

    Here are 10 pointers on how to build wealth and gain financial security over your lifetime:
    1. Save—for a reason. Saving money is the key to building a substantial portfolio. ...
    2. Invest in stocks. ...
    3. Attend an affordable college. ...
    4. Invest early. ...
    5. Automate your investing. ...
    6. Manage your debt load.
    29 Jun 2019

    How much money do you need for a lifetime? ›

    The answer for most people, according to new research by university psychologists, is $10m (£8.6m) – but not Americans, who say they need at least $100m, and frequently insist on $100bn.

    How much money do you need to live off the rest of your life? ›

    Using the 25 times rule, you would need at least $1 million. The next step is to set a goal for when you could achieve that savings goal. Let's say you wanted to have the $1 million saved in 20 years, and you're starting from scratch.

    What is the smartest thing to major in? ›

    This ensures a job well done.
    1. 20 Smart Degrees to Get for Intellectuals. Below are 20 smart majors for people who like to think. ...
    2. Actuarial Science. Actuarial science deals with risk measurements in business and finance. ...
    3. Aerospace Engineering. ...
    4. Anthropology. ...
    5. Astronomy. ...
    6. Bioethics. ...
    7. Biomedical Engineering. ...
    8. Chemical Engineering.
    27 Apr 2022

    What is the most important degree in the world? ›

    RankDegree subject% high meaning
    1Petroleum Engineering72%
    2Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS)44%
    3Applied Economics and Management69%
    4Operations Research48%
    6 more rows

    What degree takes the longest to get? ›

    Doctoral degrees can take up to 7 years of intense study to complete.

    Which degree has more job opportunities? ›

    Engineering is perhaps the most versatile major on the board, in that several career opportunities exist within its domain.

    What are top 5 majors? ›

    Here are the 10 most popular college majors based on NCES data.
    • Social Sciences and History. ...
    • Engineering. ...
    • Biological and Biomedical Sciences. ...
    • Psychology. ...
    • Communication and Journalism. ...
    • Visual and Performing Arts. ...
    • Computer and Information Sciences. ...
    • Education.

    What are the top 5 best majors? ›

    One way to increase your chances of earning a good living is to pick a college major that prepares you to work in a field that pays well.
    ...
    1. Computer Engineering. ...
    2. Computer Science. ...
    3. Electrical Engineering. ...
    4. Chemical Engineering. ...
    5. Aerospace Engineering. ...
    6. Mechanical Engineering. ...
    7. Industrial Engineering. ...
    8. Physics.

    Which Major has the best jobs? ›

    Following are the top majors for finding a job after graduation:
    • Nursing. ...
    • Electrical Engineering. ...
    • Accounting. ...
    • Chemical Engineering. ...
    • Finance. ...
    • Biomedical Engineering. ...
    • Human Resources. ...
    • Actuarial Science.

    What are the 8 essential employability skills? ›

    communication; • team work; • problem solving; • initiative and enterprise; • planning and organising; • self-management; • learning skills; and • technology.

    How do graduate students become successful? ›

    Strategies for Successful Graduate Students
    1. Get support & guidance from senior graduate students in your department. ...
    2. Be assertive and seek out opportunities. ...
    3. Celebrate each accomplishment. ...
    4. Don't put the rest of your life on hold. ...
    5. Get physical. ...
    6. Don't think that you are alone.

    Does your salary depend on your degree? ›

    There are over 80 types of bachelor's degrees, and the education you receive over the course of the program is usually enough to gain employment in most career fields. Holding a bachelor's degree could potentially earn you a significantly larger salary compared to those with less advanced education.

    Is having a degree enough to land you a top job? ›

    So, is having a degree enough? Although recruiters look highly on work experience, a degree will show that you have a certain level of expertise in a subject. Students should combine their studies with work experience for the best results.

    Is a degree even worth it now? ›

    College Graduates Earn More Than Non-Graduates

    Despite the rising cost of post-secondary education, a college degree still pays off for the majority of graduates. On average, those with a bachelor's degree earn significantly more than their peers with only a high school diploma.

    What are the 3 main benefits of a university education? ›

    The benefits of university education
    • University graduates gain professional qualifications that are recognised and respected worldwide.
    • University graduates are offered higher pay and greater financial stability.
    • University graduates are given the option to fast-track their career with graduate study.

    What is the purpose of a degree? ›

    Whether it is a bachelor's or master's degree, a postsecondary degree gives you the opportunity to pursue higher paying careers that require advanced skills. Research indicates that college graduates earn more money in their lifetime compared to those who only possess a high school diploma.

    Why is a degree more important? ›

    A degree earns respect and a social reputation. Degree earns money and status for its master. The more specialized the degree, the higher the post and status, and the higher is the salary package. A person needs to have a degree/certification and the skill to succeed in the race of professional life.

    What careers can make you millions? ›

    Jobs that better your chances of becoming a millionaire
    • Professional athlete.
    • Investment banker.
    • Entrepreneur.
    • Lawyer.
    • Certified public accountant.
    • Insurance agent.
    • Engineer.
    • Real estate agent.

    What jobs get you a lot of money? ›

    What Careers Make the Most Money?
    • Anesthesiologist. An anesthesiologist is a doctor that administers anesthetics and analgesics before, during, or after surgery. ...
    • Surgeon. ...
    • Obstetrician and Gynecologist. ...
    • Orthodontist. ...
    • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon. ...
    • Physician. ...
    • Psychiatrist. ...
    • Prosthodontists.
    30 Jun 2022

    What job can make you a billionaire? ›

    Chief executive

    Executive roles can range between CEO, CFO, CMO, CTO and COO. While these roles are different in nature, they all classify as billionaire jobs. Indeed, holding an executive position within a company is a step in the right direction when it comes to building your wealth.

    What 4 year major makes the most money? ›

    Highest Paying Jobs With a Bachelor's Degree
    RankMajorMid-Career Pay
    Rank:1Petroleum EngineeringMid-Career Pay:$187,300
    2Operations Research & Industrial EngineeringMid-Career Pay:$170,400
    3Electrical Engineering & Computer Science (EECS)Mid-Career Pay:$159,300
    4Interaction DesignMid-Career Pay:$155,800
    21 more rows

    Which field has the highest demand in future? ›

    In this article, you will learn about the top 10 best career options in the future.
    • Data Scientist.
    • Data Analyst.
    • Blockchain Developer.
    • Digital Marketer.
    • Cloud Computing Professional.
    • Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Expert.
    • Manager (MBA)
    • Software Developer.
    4 Oct 2022

    What major requires the most time? ›

    On average, philosophy majors spend more time than most college students studying, and those hours require high levels of concentration. Many philosophy majors pursue careers in law or academia because those fields reward hard work, careful reasoning, and attention to detail.

    What is the most in demand career right now? ›

    12 high demand jobs
    • Financial manager. ...
    • Medical assistant. ...
    • Software developer. ...
    • Market research analyst. ...
    • Substance abuse counselor. ...
    • Health services manager. ...
    • Statistician. ...
    • Nurse practitioner.
    13 Jul 2022

    How much more do graduates earn over lifetime UK? ›

    The average lifetime earnings gain from undergraduate degrees is substantial for both men and women, but much smaller than the difference between the gross earnings of graduates and non-graduates. The discounted difference in lifetime earnings between graduates and non-graduates is £430k for men and £260k for women.

    How much more does a college graduate 25 34 years old earn annually compared to a non graduate? ›

    Average College Graduate Salaries in 2022

    In this case, you can expect to earn $15,500 more per year on average as a 25- to 34-year-old. It's also important to note that finishing your degree is crucial.

    How much more money can the average person earn over their lifetime if they earn a college degree vs a high school graduate? ›

    In 2021, median income for recent graduates reached $52,000 a year for bachelor's degree holders aged 22–27. For high school graduates the same age, median earnings are $30,000 a year.

    Do college grads really earn more? ›

    college lifetime earnings show the stark differences in income between those who have only completed their high school diploma and those who have continued their education. In fact, research has found that there's a median earning gap of $17,500 a year between high school and college grads.

    Which university graduates earn the most? ›

    Stanford University
    RankSchoolSalary Score
    1Harvard University Massachusetts99.51
    2Massachusetts Institute of Technology Massachusetts99.48
    3Dartmouth College New Hampshire98.89
    4Yale University Connecticut98.71
    6 more rows
    2 Jun 2022

    What's a good graduate salary UK? ›

    Graduate salaries in 2022

    The current average graduate salary in the UK is just over £24,000*, according to the Graduate Outcomes report by HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency). However, we've heard folk reporting everything between £16,000 and £90,000.

    What is a high end salary UK? ›

    Average Salary – £71,400. Starting Salary – £51,000. Highest Salary – £120,000.

    What is the most popular degree in America? ›

    Here are the 10 most popular college majors based on NCES data.
    • Social Sciences and History. ...
    • Engineering. ...
    • Biological and Biomedical Sciences. ...
    • Psychology. ...
    • Communication and Journalism. ...
    • Visual and Performing Arts. ...
    • Computer and Information Sciences. ...
    • Education.

    What is the average income of someone who didn't go to college? ›

    Download as: Tab-Delimited Text MS ExcelDifference in Median Earnings Estimate, High School Diploma and Bachelors Degree ($)Median Income Estimate, Some College but No Degree ($)
    Alaska1650046250
    Arizona2591139623
    Arkansas1927235559
    California3299547645
    19 more rows

    What is a good salary in us? ›

    The weekly median earnings for full-time wage or salary workers in the United States in the second quarter of 2021 amounted to $990. It translates to a yearly income of approximately $51,480. Any amount above that should theoretically be considered a good salary; however, it is not as easy as that.

    Are people who go to university always more successful? ›

    Bachelor's degree holders earn an average of 66 percent more than high school graduates. People with a bachelor's degree will add $1 million to their total lifetime earnings compared to someone without a degree.

    How much more does a master's degree earn than a bachelor's? ›

    As previously stated, bachelor's degree holders will earn an average of around $55,000 per year. In comparison, a professional with a master's degree will make an average of $69,732 per year, according to data compiled by SmartAsset. That is a difference of just under $15,000 per year.

    Does having more education always lead to a higher salary? ›

    Getting a college degree typically pays, but it's not a guarantee. Although workers with more education generally earn more, a good number of those without a college diploma are making more than college graduates.

    Are college graduates happier with their jobs? ›

    The benefits do not stop at job satisfaction. An article by Entrepreneur states that college graduates tend to be more productive members of society — happier as well. Each one of these factors demonstrates, in part, the value of earning a four-year undergraduate degree.

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