A Look at High and Low Earning Programs of Study

Not surprisingly, last week’s release of program-level earnings data in the newest version of the College Scorecard got a lot of attention both inside and outside the higher education community. I have gotten quite a few requests from reporters to dive deeper into the data, and I am happy to oblige with a look at which programs have graduates with the highest and lowest median salaries approximately one year after graduation.

First, a few methodological notes. I decided to look at three groups of credentials: certificates and associate degrees from two-year colleges, bachelor’s degrees from four-year colleges, and graduate credentials (certificates, master’s degrees and doctoral/first professional degrees) from research universities. I defined my samples by merging 2018 Carnegie classifications into the Scorecard data and only analyzing colleges with more than five programs that had enough observations in the dataset to have median earnings reported. So think of this as a look at some of the larger programs of study, with the caveat that the Scorecard’s definition of “program” often encompasses multiple academic majors as they are typically defined.

Now that the methods are set forth, let’s dive into the data. 175 two-year colleges met the above requirements for being in the sample, with 176 programs being represented for minimum and maximum earnings due to ties. Nursing programs were more than one-third of the highest earning programs, while criminal justice was the most common low-earning program.

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, two-year colleges.

Lowest earnings (n=176) Highest earnings (n=176)
Criminal justice (n=31) Nursing (n=65)
Health/medical administration (n=27) Information technology (n=18)
Teacher education (n=23) Fire protection (n=14)
Liberal arts (n=16) Allied health diagnostics (n=12)
Cosmetology (n=11) HR management (n=8)
Human development (n=8) Medical assisting (n=7)
Allied health (n=8) Dental support services (n=6)
Median earnings: $21,000 Median earnings: $51,800

At the bachelor’s degree level, 958 colleges were represented with more than five programs. Liberal arts programs in fields such as psychology, drama, and English had the lowest earnings, but biology was the third most common program to have the lowest earnings at the institution. On the high end, nursing was by far the most common program, followed by a number of STEM and business-related degrees.

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, bachelor’s degrees.

Lowest earnings (n=972) Highest earnings (n=964)
Psychology (n=92) Nursing (n=352)
Drama/theatre arts (n=84) Computer science (n=93)
Biology (n=77) Information technology (n=75)
English language/literature (n=77) Electronics engineering (n=57)
Fine and studio arts (n=68) Accounting (n=49)
Health and fitness (n=42) Business administration (n=34)
Music (n=37) Computer engineering (n=31)
Median earnings: $22,400 Median earnings: $63,150

 I then looked at the 323 Carnegie doctoral/research universities that had more than five graduate programs with data. The patterns for programs with the lowest earnings are similar, with music, health and fitness, and fine arts popping up on the bachelor’s degree and graduate credential lists. And again, nursing is the most common program with the highest earnings. (Is there a trend?)

Most common programs for lowest and highest earnings, graduate programs.

Lowest earnings (n=330) Highest earnings (n=323)
Music (n=45) Nursing (n=100)
Student counseling (n=32) Business administration (n=42)
Social work (n=24) Pharmacy (n=39)
Health and fitness (n=15) Allied health diagnostics (n=27)
Teacher education (n=14) Educational administration (n=21)
Fine and studio arts (n=13) Dentistry (n=10)
Mental/social health services (n=13) Advanced dentistry (n=8)
Median earnings: $35,700 Median earnings: $103,900

Naturally, when I dug into the data, I wanted to see how my program looked in the College Scorecard data. The doctoral program in educational administration at Seton Hall has median graduate earnings of $110,200 one year after completion, which makes it the university’s highest-paid program (nursing is second at $96,000). Educational administration programs do pretty well, thanks in large part to serving adult students working as principals, superintendents, or higher education administrations. But this is a broad category, including EdD programs in K-12 and higher education and a PhD program in higher education. So can I tell my students with certainty what they will make as higher education professionals? No. But is some information better than none? I think so.

Author: Robert

I am an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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