As I’ve mentioned before, I studied education as an undergraduate. I knew that my career as a public school teacher would limit my potential earnings over my lifetime, though I eyed administration as a potential progression. I diverged into non-profit work, and if I learned anything from my time working at a non-profit, it’s that it can be very psychologically fulfilling work, but rarely financially fulfilling. That’s great for someone who doesn’t need to worry about whether there’s enough money to buy groceries and pay rent or is willing to make great personal sacrifices.
I changed my line of work. At a financial firm, hindsight tells me I could have negotiated a higher starting salary, but it was already a great increase over my salary at the non-profit I had left just a short time prior.
According to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, undergraduate students who majored in education and have attained at most a bachelor’s degree earn less than other students, even when they pursue a career path that is more lucrative. The bureau calculated and cross-referenced lifetime earnings for each major and each career field by grouping survey respondents into eight age buckets consisting of five years, determined the median annual earnings for each age group, multiplied the number by five, and added the totals together.
It’s an interesting method of calculation, and I don’t know whether I would have chosen the same method. If the purpose of the study is cross-discipline and cross-industry comparisons, the fact that it’s consistent is what’s most important. The bureau’s report acknowledges this: “This estimate is not intended to be a prediction but an illustrative example of the magnitude of differences in earnings based on factors such as education and occupation added up over a work life.”
Using this calculation, an engineering major who works in engineering in architecture throughout his or her life earns a figure of $3.6 million. Again, this is not a prediction of actual earnings, but a representation of the data useful for comparison. Business majors who take on the same work throughout their lives earn $2.9 million. An education major in architecture of engineering earns a full million less than the engineering major, even when pursuing the same career.
Education majors even earn less than business, computer, math, and science majors when pursuing careers in education, $1.8 million versus $1.9 million, though I expect that doesn’t reflect a statistically significant difference. That concentration in education seems to put people at a financial disadvantage for the rest of their income-earning lives. In one case, as the report indicates, education majors working in the service sector, the earnings are less than the average for those with just a high school diploma. I’m sure that’s not a fair comparison, however; a better comparison would be be within the service sector, education majors compared to those with no more education than the high school diploma.
When I was in high school — and this is twenty years ago so my memory may be hazy — those who weren’t sure what they wanted to do with their lives were encouraged to study business in college. I would say engineering is a better choice. Just having any college degree creates flexibility in career direction and increases human capital, but from a financial perspective, some degrees are more valuable. For a high school student, there might not always be an available choice between pursuit of a business degree and an engineering degree. The latter could require more intense coursework, and that might not be appropriate for every matriculating student.
One conclusion I can draw from the survey is advice for potential college students. Unless there is no career you could possibly conceive of pursuing throughout your life, don’t major in education. If you choose to become an educator, you can do so with any college degree without suffering any setback other than taking some extra time to gain certification in most states. There is no setback to teaching without a degree in education, except perhaps if the field you’d like to teach requires specific skills. If you’re so inclined, a double major in your field, like math or science, and in education could help.
The fact is that the role of a teacher is not highly valued in American society. The best teachers could be great at any job, and given the choice, many pursue better paying careers where their talents and skills are remunerated more favorably. From a practical perspective, a degree in most fields other than education offers more earning potential while still retaining the option of pursuing a teaching career without any detrimental effects.
Published or updated October 16, 2012.