Economists usually talk about the college premium, but the college premium heavily depends on your major.  At the same time, though, stronger students typically choose harder – and more lucrative – majors.  Thus, the college premium is doubly infected by ability bias: People who would have made more money anyway are more likely to go to college, and college graduates who would have made more money anyway are more likely to select demanding majors.

To weigh whether a particular major is better than skipping college entirely, you need to adjust for all these factors, then see whether the adjusted college premium outweighs your full cost of college.  As far as I have found, however, no researcher has published such figures.  Don’t get me wrong: Existing research provides all the numbers necessary to make this calculation.  But you have to snap all the pieces together yourself.

Here’s how in six tolerably difficult steps:

Step 1: Get the average college premium. (+83% on the latest Census data).

Step 2: Adjust the average college premium for ability bias. (leaving a +46% “reasonable estimate” based on my reading of existing literature that controls for measured ability).

Step 3: Get major-specific premia (usually calculated relative to the education major, roughly the lowest-earning major). (The best source I’ve found is Altonji, Blom, and Meghir 2012).

Step 4: Adjust these premia for ability bias. (50% ability bias is a standard estimate in this literature, which routinely controls for pre-existing ability).*

Step 5: Get the ability-adjusted premium of the average-earning major (probably business). (Just apply Step 4 to Step 3).

Step 6: The major-specific college premium relative to high school alone then equals: Step 2 * (1+Step 4)/(1+Step 5).

Here are the final results for common majors:

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MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

 Major Males Females Electrical engineering +63% +72% Computer Science +61% +63% Mechanical engineering +61% +72% Finance +61% +55% Economics +60% +59% Accounting +53% +53% Mathematics +53% +50% Nursing +52% +59% Chemistry +48% +47% General business +46% +46% Political science/gov’t +46% +47% Biology +44% +43% Communications +37% +45% History +35% +37% Sociology +35% +36% Liberal arts +34% +36% English language/lit. +34% +37% Anthro./archaeology +32% +36% Fine Arts +25% +29% General Education +24% +30%

Needless to say, these major premia lack the precision of Planck’s constant.  Compared to what the typical 12th-grader vaguely thinks, though, this table is good as gold.

STEM fans will revel in the top three rows.  To avoid confirmation bias, though, notice that the payoff for English, history, and communications is only modestly lower than the payoff for biology, chemistry, and math.

The real winner in this table, I do declare, is economics.  I’ve long told my undergrads, “Economics is the highest-paid of all the easy majors.”  Still, the magnitudes surprised me.  After adjusting for pre-existing ability, male econ majors (+60%) are almost as well-paid as male electrical engineers (+63%).  Given engineers’ workload, they definitely seem to get the short end of the stick.

When I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, a popular campus t-shirt read, “As the limit of GPA –> 0, GOTO poli sci.”  Given current major premia, I’m tempted to make a t-shirt that says, “Do not stop in STEM.  Go directly to econ.”

* 50% ability bias means a 50% decline in the coefficients measured
in log-dollars.  Some major premia are so large that the log dollar=%
change approximation breaks down, so be careful.