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Although the idea that the master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree has been around for several years,1 most discussions around the value of postsecondary education still focus on the bachelor’s degree. These seemingly contradictory positions make sense: The master’s has been the fastest-growing degree over the past two decades, yet the bachelor’s is still the most common degree granted by the nation’s colleges and universities.2
Despite substantial growth, relatively little information exists on the economic value of a master’s degree by field of study. Reflecting the prominence of bachelor’s degrees, however, the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) collects and reports wages for bachelor’s graduates by major—the only college credential for which such information is made available in the ACS. Looking at annual median earnings for workers 25 years and older, the ACS documents considerable variation by bachelor’s field of study—not surprisingly, engineering graduates top the list with earnings over $90,000 while graduates who majored in visual and performing arts anchor the bottom at just over $50,000.3
This kind of field-specific information is also available for the highest end of the education attainment scale. The National Science Foundation releases data on Ph.D. graduates’ wages by field of study through the Survey of Earned Doctorates.4 For both male and female doctorate recipients, the highest annual median salary went to Ph.D.s in business and management ($111,000+). For men, economics and mathematics/computer science came in second (both at $110,000). For women, economics came in second ($100,000), edging out engineering ($92,000). At the very bottom of the salary scale were Ph.D.s in the humanities and the arts at around $50,000 for both men and women—no different than the median earnings for bachelor’s graduates in similar fields.5
Although associate degrees are the second most commonly awarded postsecondary credential, ACS does not report earnings by field of study for associate degree holders either. However, data from several states, as reported by College Measures, a research center focused on identifying the return on investment of higher education credentials, document wide variation in outcomes depending on field of study. A variety of reports show that, as in the case for bachelor’s and doctoral degrees, the labor market places high value on graduates who have earned technical associate degrees while placing a low value on graduates who have majored in liberal arts and related fields.6
While these different data sources cast light on the labor market value of several different types of degrees, the earnings of master’s graduates by field of study is mostly overlooked in official federal and state statistics. This is unfortunate because universities awarded almost 760,000 master’s degrees in 2014–15, more than four times the number of doctorates awarded the same year (179,000).7 While these students likely know how much they have to pay for their master’s programs, they are lacking vital information on the expected payoff.
Many of the existing studies of wages earned by master’s graduates hint at wage differentials, but these often do not provide enough information to fully judge the relative returns to different fields of study. The Census does report some (dated) master’s-level data in its “What It’s Worth: Field Training and Economic Status” series.8 As shown in Table 1, the Census groups together a wide range of specific majors into eight large fields. These data make clear that there are large differences in the payoff for different fields of study—both across master’s degrees and in the size of the “bonus” for adding a master’s to a bachelor’s degree.
Nonetheless, one problem with these Census data is the aggregation of different specific fields of study into a few large categories. Each of the eight large groups used contains several fields of study rather than reporting data for the specific majors that students actually completed. This masks wide variation across the fields that comprise the clusters. For instance, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the median earnings for someone with a graduate degree in anthropology is $66,000, and for graduates in interdisciplinary social science, it is $49,000.9
In contrast, the median earnings for someone with a graduate degree in economics is more than $100,000 and $90,000 in international relations—yet in the Census data all are grouped together in social sciences. Similarly, in business the range encompasses a graduate degree in business economics at the high end with a median of $100,000 and a degree in hospitality management at only $69,000.10
The Census data in its “Pathways After Bachelor’s” report also show average lifetime earnings of master’s degree recipients by undergraduate major or field of study at the national level, which is also the method used in the Georgetown University study noted above. The clear limitation is that a student may have earned their master’s degree in a totally different field of study as their undergraduate degree.11
In this brief we begin to address these lacunae in existing data, documenting the wide variation in the earnings of master’s graduates according to their field of study. We use information from three states—Colorado, Florida, and Texas—that have made detailed program-level earnings data available through a partnership with College Measures.12 We document wide variation in the earnings of master’s students by field of study, from the least remunerative to the highest-yielding programs.
In our analysis, we focus on the earnings outcomes of master’s students in specific fields of study five years after completion.13 In the panels of Tables 2 and 3 we report the earnings data of graduates from the 10 programs in each state with the lowest and highest wage outcomes.14 For the lowest 10 programs, we benchmark the wage outcomes against the median earnings for associate and bachelor’s graduates in those three states. There is some variation across the states reflecting state-specific differences in the economies, but there are also some consistent patterns across states with respect to high- and low-paying fields of study.
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