Two years ago, Erin Ford graduated from the University of Texas with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering. Recruiters came to campus to woo her. She got a paid summer internship, which turned into a full-time job after she graduated. Now, at age 24, she makes $110,000 a year.



Michael Gardner just graduated from City College in New York with a degree in psychology. He applied for more than 100 jobs, had trouble getting interviews and worked at Home Depot to make ends meet.

“Every single day while I was at work, I’m thinking, ‘I just hope I really don’t get stuck.’ ” Gardner just got a job earning $36,000 a year as a case worker — and he feels lucky to have it.

What you major in has a bigger influence over your income than where you go to school, according to Anthony Carnevale, an economist at Georgetown University. The graph below is based on Carnevale’s research — and it shows the huge range in median earnings for people with different majors.

Gardner was shocked when I told him people who majored in petroleum engineering have a median income of $120,000. But, he said, even if someone had shown him that graph when he was a freshman, it wouldn’t have changed his path.

“I came into the school knowing where I want to go and what i wanted to do,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t mind the money. It’s more of a fulfilling thing for me.”

What the report doesn’t take into account are non-degree career paths that can equally or more lucrative than the ones listed here. According to Thomas Frey, Executive Director of the DaVinci Institute, “Colleges like to channel your thinking into them being the only option, but that’s simply not true. Positions such as Executive Pastry Chef, Master Plumber, Air Traffic Controller, or Court Reporter are all potentially six figure jobs that don’t require a college degree. Perhaps the most common non-degree job is computer programmer, where talented people with just a few months training at places like DaVinci Coders and few years experience can command pro athlete salaries.”

Update: For much more data on college majors and income, see this report (PDF) by Carnevale and his colleagues.