The juice isn’t worth the squeeze for many college majors, new report reveals: Lifetime earnings simply can’t keep up with the cost of degrees



For many aspiring students, the decision to attend college comes with scary caveats, like years of unaffordable debt. Now there’s another thing to fear: Even if having a degree leads to higher earning potential down the line, a new analysis says about 30% of students won’t earn enough money to offset the price of school. 

All things considered, the decision to attend college involves a lot of financial decisions a typical high school graduate might not have enough awareness about, including how to pay off education-related debt and how much they can expect to earn from the degree they choose. High schoolers are most interested in attending college to get a good job that will help them earn more money—but about a third of degree programs don’t lead to a return on investments people pay to attend, according to the new report from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, which analyzed how much people spend on higher education versus how much they earn over their lifetimes. 

The financial returns that come from pursuing higher education are worth it more often than not, the report states, but it’s highly dependent on the major a student chooses—and it’s creating a conflict where students are choosing between trade schools to optimize their financial returns or pursuing a field they might hate, but will pay well.

On average, a bachelor’s degree in fields like engineering, computer science, nursing and economics provide the biggest financial returns on investment, or earnings in relation to how expensive the degree is, according to the report. With an engineering degree, for example, a student can expect lifetime earnings of about $950,000, while a student who completes a nursing degree could rake in a lifetime earnings of about $618,000. 

When choosing a college and degree program, the most important variable students should consider is how much they’ll earn, according to Preston Cooper, the lead author of the report.

“A high-earning career trajectory will deliver benefits for decades, while high tuition costs must be paid for a few years at most,” Cooper said.  

Other fields, especially those in fine arts, offer significantly less financial returns. A bachelor’s degree in psychology, the humanities, or English and literature are among those with the lowest financial returns; on average, students who pursue a degree in fine arts actually lost about $88,000 over their lifetimes.  

In these fields, Cooper said, there are still ways to ensure a college degree stays valuable. With an English major, for example, he said “there’s evidence that in combination with more tangible skills and marketing, graduates can improve the return on investments they get to improve the value of the degree they are getting out of college.” 

Trade schools can offer higher returns on investment than a traditional bachelor’s degree because, according to Cooper, they are often shorter programs that cost less tuition and offer straight paths to higher paying jobs in fields like HVAC and construction. Still, he said, the lucrativeness of trade schools is dependent on the field, adding that a degree in cosmetology doesn’t offer the same returns. 

Almost a quarter of four-year degree programs have a negative return on investment, the report found, as do 43% of two-year degree programs. For example, a bachelor’s degree in drama at the University of Southern California costs students over $160,000 over four years, but graduates of the program earn $10,000 less than they would if they got a job they didn’t need the degree for, the report found. 

Meanwhile, other fields can be extremely lucrative. The report estimates that graduates of Princeton University’s computer engineering program could make a lifetime earnings of over $7 million. 

Regardless of the field, college enrollment rates have been dropping for the past decade, according to a report by College Transitions, a data-driven blog by researchers and former school-admissions officers. Several factors are responsible for this trend, including the declining national birth rate, decreased immigration, the pandemic, and the rising price of college tuition. For students, who often prioritize their ability to earn money when making decisions about attending school, these financial challenges are giving way to additional stresses, like burnout and feeling unfulfilled at work. 

A new study published by Journal of Business and Psychology found large gaps between people’s career interests and the country’s most in-demand jobs, which indicate the hottest jobs on the labor market drastically differ from what people are interested in doing. 

The study, which used a national dataset of over 1.2 million U.S. residents and employment data from the Department of Labor, found that people are most interested in pursuing artistic jobs, but it’s one of the fields that’s least in demand, with only 2% of jobs on the market involving artistic interests. In contrast, the least popular job interest was described as systematic or detail-oriented work, which encompassed the most highly in-demand jobs.

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