AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Many students started college this month, and they will almost immediately begin grappling with a tough question: what to major in. According to some economists, it's the most important decision that a college student makes because there's a lot of money at stake.
Lisa Chow, of NPR's Planet Money Team, reports on how the return on your education investment can vary wildly, depending on what you study.
LISA CHOW, BYLINE: How important is your major? It's even more important than the school you go to. Anthony Carnevale is an economist at Georgetown University.
ANTHONY CARNEVALE: If you go to Harvard and pay all that money and become a schoolteacher, you won't be earning more than other schoolteachers.
CHOW: Carnevale did a study and found huge variations in the earnings of different undergraduate majors. Pick the right major and just a year out of college, you could be earning six figures, like Erin Ford.
ERIN FORD: I make 110,000 right now.
CHOW: Ford is 24, and graduated from the University of Texas two years ago with a bachelor's degree in petroleum engineering, the highest undergraduate major that Carnevale found. The median earnings for people with that degree: $120,000.
MICHAEL GARDNER: What? Wait - repeat that? You said 120,000?
GARDNER: That is insane.
CHOW: Michael Gardner is a recent graduate in one of the lowest-earning majors, psychology. He's 22, and graduated from City College in New York last spring. He'll be earning a third of what Ford earns when he starts his job later this month as a case worker for foster care kids. And this is consistent with what Carnevale found. People in the highest-earning majors, which were mostly in engineering, made as much as four times more than people in the lowest-earning majors, which were mainly in social services and the arts.
And it's often harder to land a job in these disciplines. Gardner applied for more than a hundred jobs while working his student retail job at Home Depot.
GARDNER: I'd wake up, check my voicemail, make sure I didn't get a voicemail from anybody - you know, checking emails or making sure that I was followed up with, and stuff like that. And employers would not follow up with you at all.
CHOW: Now, compare that with Erin Ford's experience. She was recruited on campus for an internship - and not one of those unpaid deals, either.
FORD: You get paid better than any part-time job a student's going to have in the summer.
CHOW: And at the end of her summer, Ford was offered a full-time job before she even started her senior year.
FORD: It was really a - a really easy process.
CHOW: Now, partly what's going on here is supply and demand. There're a lot more psychology majors than petroleum engineering majors. Despite its low earnings potential, psychology is one of the most popular majors out there. And for a lot of people who major in it - including Michael Gardner - it's not about the money.
So when you were a freshman, if I had given you a list; and right next to every major there was a number, and that number showed you the typical salary, would that have influenced your decision?
GARDNER: It still wouldn't have, and I'll tell you why. Honestly, I don't mind the money. It's more of a fulfilling thing for me.
CHOW: Gardner says he likes helping people. Getting paid $36,000 a year to do it felt like a score.
GARDNER: I was like, ding, hello. 'Cause when I was working at Home Depot, even working 32 hours, I was still making under 20,000.
CHOW: And yet, altruism can't be the only explanation for why so many people flock to a major with such low earnings potential. Another reason? It's easier. Not everybody is cut out to be a petroleum engineer, even if they want to make money. Also, people may pick a major that doesn't make them much money, thinking they'll go to graduate school at some point - which, statistics say, often boosts their earnings. And finally, for every study like Carnevale's, there's a living, breathing counter example.
Billionaire investor Carl Icahn majored in philosophy. The head of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, majored in communications. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg didn't even graduate from college. But let's be honest, all four are rare and exceptional cases.
Most of us are like Chase Menard. He graduated from Louisiana State University with a degree in political science. He got a job at a hotel, making $40,000 a year. But two years later, he started to think about getting married and having kids.
CHASE MENARD: With that in mind, I decided I was going to go back to school for something that was going to be able to make more money.
CHOW: So he went and got a second bachelor's degree. And this time around, he paid close attention to what majors made the most money - and chose petroleum engineering.
MENARD: The first time through was kind of like OK, let's just get the piece of paper and we can go to work. But the second time through, I looked at it more of as an investment in me and my family's future.
CHOW: An investment that paid off. Menard now makes six figures, more than doubling his salary. For Erin Ford, who's making this kind of money the first time around, she's still getting used to it.
FORD: My dad jokes that he didn't make as much as I made until five years ago. So I do feel guilty about it, but there's not really much I can do to change it. And I don't really want to change it, either.
CHOW: Prospective graduates, if this is the problem you'd like to have, maybe engineering is worth a second look.
Lisa Chow, NPR News.