Your major in college can have as much — or more — of an impact on how much money you make than what college you attend, according to a new report by NPR’s Lisa Chow.
The story, which aired Monday, is nothing new. Chow’s report was a reaction to research by Anthony Carnevale, an economist at Georgtown University, and reflected similar research on college majors by websites like Bankrate.com.
Though Bankrate’s results may have differed from Carnevale's (Carnevale’s data shows engineering majors getting the best payout, but Bankrate hands the top honor to those in advertising and marketing majors) the implication is the same: Passion majors such as psychology and studio arts just aren’t worth the price.
But Chow moves beyond these assumptions, exploring what motivates someone to choose a major in the first place.
In a radio interview, Chow compares the experiences of two college graduates: One who chose their major because of interest, another who chose based on the projected wealthy returns. Not surprisingly, both were happy with their career choices, but for very different reasons.
"I came into the school knowing where I want to go and what I wanted to do," Michael Gardner, a recent graduate who majored in psychology at City College in New York, told Chow in an interview. "Honestly, I don't mind the money. It's more of a fulfilling thing for me."
Gardner's choice to enter psychology, one of the most popular and least lucrative fields of study, may seem rather ludicrous compared to Chow's other interviewee, Erin Ford.
Ford majored in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas, and makes more than three times Gardner's salary.
"It was really a - a really easy process," Ford told Chow. "My dad jokes that he didn't make as much as I made until five years ago. So I do feel guilty about it, but there's not really much I can do to change it. And I don't really want to change it, either."
Two days later Chow ran another report based on the same data, but this time she zeroed in on how women factor in to Carnevale’s numbers.
According to Carnevale’s data, women are more prone to major in less lucrative subjects, such as social work (88 percent of graduates in this major are female), early childhood education (97 percent female) or communication disorders sciences (94 percent female).
On the contrary, only 13 percent of those who majored in the most lucrative subject, petroleum engineering, were female.
According to Chow, many women pass up more lucrative fields of study because they are “put off” by industries dominated by men, or because they simply prefer to focus on having a family.
But there may be another reason women choose less lucrative majors. One that may also explain the often reported gender wage gap.
Chow herself, as she explains on NPR.com, majored in applied math and went on to receive an MBA. Both very practical, lucrative fields of study. Because she ultimately chose journalism instead of a job in business management, Carnevale estimates she lost out on a few million dollars over the course of her lifetime.
“So what's my excuse?” she writes, “I love my job.”
So what does this have to say about the glass ceiling?
Slate's Hanna Rosin's recent article, "The Gender Wage Gap Lie," had some observations similar to Chow's.
"Women congregate in different professions than men do, and the largely male professions tend to be higher-paying," Rosin writes, arguing that the different professional preferences are the main driver of what she calls the "tidy, misleading statistic" known as the gender wage gap.
"Is it that women are choosing lower-paying professions or that our country values women’s professions less?" Rosin asks. "Is this all discrimination or, as economist Claudia Goldin likes to say, also a result of 'rational choices' women make about how they want to conduct their lives."
Rosin's line of reasoning seems to fit right in with Chow's report. Which is less rational: Choosing a career path you know has little potential for financial stability, or choosing a life track that leaves you feeling emotionally and intellectually unfulfilled?