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College & Career

Five rules for making most of college, starting with picking a major

| Wednesday, May 16, 2018, 9:15 a.m.
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Students and families looking to make what could be the most expensive investment of a lifetime — a college education — need to do their homework.

A new study out of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce isn't throwing out the common wisdom that college pays off, but researchers say making college count is "less about college you go to and what degree you get but more about the returns of individual college programs."

"The variety of college programs today is a Tower of Babel," said Anthony P. Carnevale, lead author of the report and director of the Georgetown Center. "We need to help students decipher their options in the first major investment in the journey from youth dependency to independent adulthood."

Even the rules these folks have come up with can be contradictory. But they've been studying education and work force issues for years, so we'll give them a shot at offering their takes on the topic. Here they are:

Rule 1: More education is usually better. Median earnings increase with each additional level of educational attainment. The median earnings of a high school diploma holder are $36,000, while a bachelor of arts holder makes $62,000, and a graduate degree holder earns $80,000, on average.

Rule 2: Majors matter more. A bachelor's degree in architecture and engineering leads to median annual earnings of $85,000, almost double the median annual earnings of education majors of $46,000.

Rule 3: Majors are important, but they do not control one's destiny. The top 25 percent of liberal arts majors ($81,000) make more than the bottom 25 percent of architecture and engineering majors ($60,000).

Rule 4: Less education can be worth more. Twenty-eight percent of associate degree holders, and many workers with one-year certificates, earn more than the average bachelor of arts holder. Some bachelor's degrees holders earn more than the average worker with a graduate degree.

Rule 5: Most humanities and liberal arts majors never catch up with the highest earning majors such as STEM, health care and business. Earnings for majors such as business, biology and life sciences, and physical sciences can overtake earnings of social science majors at later ages.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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