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Engineers top list in report linking pay to degree

Attention college students: pick a major with care. It could mean millions of dollars over the course of a working life.

For the first time, the US Census Bureau has analyzed earnings by type of degree and occupation. In a report released Thursday, the bureau found wide gaps in lifetime earnings between those with technical bachelor’s degrees and those who graduated with majors in the arts, humanities, and education.

For example, an engineering major working in business management will earn an estimated $4 million over a working life of 40 years, more than three times the $1.3 million that an artist with an arts degree can expect to take home. The findings are based on data from 2011 American Community Survey and calculations of earning power for people between the ages of 25 and 64.


“Universities and colleges are really struggling with this — how much do we try to inform our incoming students about what their choices are going to mean,” said Robert A. Nakosteen, a professor of business management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Lifetime earnings can tell you something pretty dramatic about the major you are in. And you also have to do something that you like.”

In general, the report found, a college degree pays off. Someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn about $2.4 million over a career, more than double the $936,000 for someone who never attended high school and about $1 million more than what someone with just a high school diploma will earn.

But all degrees are not created equal, the census report found. A liberal arts major will earn about $2.1 million over 40 years, more than an education major, who will earn about $1.8 million, but far less than an engineering major, who will earn about $3.5 million.


A separate report, also released Thursday by the Census Bureau, found that the median salary for engineering majors (age 25 and up) was about $91,000 annually, the highest of any profession. That was followed by computer science and mathematics majors who earned about $80,000 annually. Business majors earned median incomes of about $66,000 a year, while liberal arts and history majors earned median incomes of $59,000 a year.

Women’s earnings were below men’s in every category of occupations requiring college degrees. A male computer programmer or statistician earned a median salary of $84,000, while a woman in the same job earned about $16,000 less, or $68,000 a year.

D. Anthony Butterfield, a professor of management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has studied gender pay differences, said the gap has been closing but persists because women are viewed as less strong advocates for higher pay than men.

“Pay should be based on qualifications, experience, and above all, performance,” he said. “Women have been in the pipeline long enough in virtually all professions. The pay gap should be gone by now.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on twitter at @megwoolhouse.