That College Psych Degree Will Earn You Barely More than a High School Diploma

Bachelor's degree holders are still more likely to be employed, but their starting salaries depend on what they studied.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Thanks to the Great Recession and troubling trends in how higher education is financed, the last few years have been rife with cautionary tales of college students who rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt only to find themselves living back home with Mom and Dad after graduation, unable to find a job. The latest report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce confirms that a college degree is still the best guarantee of employability. But will folks who’ve just received their diploma be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment after the pomp and circumstance of commencement is over?

As the center’s researchers found, it all depends on what students choose to major in. They analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data from 2011–2012 and found some seriously sharp gaps in the salaries recent grads between the ages of 22 and 26 are taking home.

The folks who were best off financially right after graduation were those who studied engineering. They rake in a median income of $57,000 a year, nearly twice what their peers who only have a high school diploma earn.

Things are a bit more bleak for people who earned a degree in some of the nation’s most popular majors. Recent grads who studied psychology, social work, or the arts earn a median income of $31,000. That’s about $1,000 more than the median salary of someone who just has a high school diploma. As the report’s authors put it, for those majors, “a college degree confers no immediate earnings advantage.”

Salaries aren’t much better for people who majored in the humanities or in the liberal arts. Those recent grads take home a median income of $32,000 per year. Although being a teacher gets a rap as a low-paying profession, grads who were education majors are earning slightly more than other liberal arts degree holders. The median income for a newbie teacher is $33,000 per year.

So does all this mean that parents should steer a child who wants to major in psychology or social work toward petroleum engineering instead? Not necessarily. Given that millennials are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, America could probably use more well-trained social workers and psychologists in the long run.

Although it might seem like good advice to tell a kid who wants to major in art that attending a pricey private university is off the table, a world where parents begin delivering ultimatums to their sons and daughters—No applying to Harvard unless you agree to study engineering!—seems equally shortsighted. The real issue to address is the ballooning cost of college. After all, if a recent grad doesn’t have a mountain of debt hanging over his or her head, a less hefty starting salary for an art major doesn’t seem like such a financial disaster.

Last year two economists crunched the numbers and found that the rate of return for a college diploma is somewhere between 14 and 15 percent per year. When it comes to looking at employment rates, even an art major will have an earnings advantage over the long term. According to the January 2015 unemployment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.4 percent of people over the age of 25 who have only a high school diploma are unemployed. In comparison, just 2.8 percent of their peers with bachelor’s degrees are out of work. Over an individual’s lifetime, a college degree, no matter the major, is still a sound financial investment.