The Intersection of Academic Majors, Race/Ethnicity, and Lifetime Earnings

After a brief divergence to review fall 2023 enrollment in Texas, we are wrapping-up our four-part series on lifetime earnings and educational attainment. In this blog post, we explore the intersection of academic majorrace/ethnicity, educational attainment and lifetime earnings, variables that were covered independently in previous blog posts. As seen throughout the posts in this series, greater levels of educational attainment generally lead to higher lifetime earnings. However, when accounting for factors such as academic major, occupation, and race/ethnicity, there is variance in the magnitude of the positive effect higher educational attainment has on lifetime earnings.

In the visualization below, we present estimated median lifetime earnings on the x-axis from the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University plotted against the percentage of underrepresented minorities (URM1on the y-axis using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). For both bachelor’s and master’s degree earners, each circle on the graphs represents academic major groupings in the CEW data. Circle size represents the number of degrees awarded in that academic major group across all higher education institutions in the United States in AY2021-2022.

  • One of the primary takeaways from these graphs is that academic programs that tend to have lower lifetime earnings are also ones that have a higher percentage of degrees awarded to URM students.
  • For example, at the bachelor’s degree level, Education has the lowest lifetime earnings at just over $2 million, and 22% of degrees awarded in Education fields in 2022 were awarded to URM students.
  • Out of the 181,318 bachelor’s degrees awarded to students in Psychology/Social Work fields in 2022, 37.4% were awarded to URM students, which was the highest URM percentage across the academic groupings in the CEW data.
  • At the bachelor’s level, Agriculture and Natural Resources (17.1%) and Computers, Statistics, and Mathematics (17.6%) had the lowest percentage of URM students who were awarded degrees in 2022.
  • Two academic major groupings have higher URM percentages at the master’s level than at the bachelor’s level: Education with 22% in bachelor’s degrees and 24.2% in master’s degrees, and Law/Public Policy with 28.8% in bachelor’s degrees and 31.9% in master’s degrees. 
  • Three academic major groupings have more than 10-percentage point drops in URM representation moving from bachelor’s to master’s degrees: Computers, Statistics and Mathematics (10.7% difference from 17.7% to 6.9%), Social Sciences (11% difference from 31.3% to 20.3%), and Industrial Arts, Consumer Services, and Recreation majors (11% difference from 36.6% to 25.5%).

Footnote: 1In general, URM has typically been used in higher education to include students who self-identify as being in one of four race/ethnicity categories: American Indian and/or Alaska Native, Black or African American, Hispanic, or Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NIH).

So What?

Based on the data reviewed in this series, more education = more earnings:

  • Someone with an associate’s degree earns 26% more than someone with a high school diploma ($2.1M versus $1.7M) over their lifetime.
  • A bachelor’s degree is typically worth 32% more in lifetime earnings than an associate’s degree ($2.8M versus $2.1M) and worth 65% more than a high school diploma.
  • A doctoral degree increases lifetime earnings by 32% above a master’s degree ($4M versus $3.1M) .

As we narrow the focus to academic majors, occupations, or race/ethnicity groups, the data show differential outcomes in lifetime earnings across different variables. This insight, along with our collective attempts to mitigate the variances seen in the data, is nothing new. As we consider the implications of these findings, several questions come to mind:

  • How are we engaging students from historically underserved populations earlier in their academic careers to promote interest in disciplines that have higher lifetime earnings?
  • What current programs are effectively increasing student readiness for post-secondary educational opportunities? How do we replicate these successes at scale?
  • Which policies and procedures exist that are creating barriers to promoting greater student preparation and success?

Solutions to these and other questions posited around these data are paramount as we seek to increase students’ personal and professional readiness to succeed in a rapidly-changing culture and society.

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