That all this salary data exists is, in certain ways, a bad thing--it reflects the ongoing drive to view college majors purely through return on income, without even a halfhearted attempt to make the results valid. (Randomly assign students into college majors and look at their incomes, and we'd be talking; but it's flabbergasting that anyone thinks that business majors often make more than English majors because their education prepared them to, rather than that the people who major in business, you know, care more about money than English majors do.
Anyway, in addition to the ACS data I worked with there, I also took a look at a newer form of information that's just coming online now. The University of Texas is pioneering a new system that will report earnings not just by major, but by school. It seems like the census bureau and the NCES may expand this kind of system of other schools.
This begins to solve, on the surface, a major problem with earnings statistics, which is that majors aren't offered at the same spectrum of institutions. Art history majors might actually be doing pretty well on the job market; but that might be because only rich kids at elite schools major in art history. Engineering majors make more money than anyone else; but they also come from wealthier families than anyone else, and may graduate from wealthier schools.
It also creates an enormous new problem that I want to underline before I show the charts, by not taking student characteristics into account. I've written before about how completely pernicious major earnings statistics that fail to take gender gaps into account are: since gender is a more important determinant of earnings than college major except in extreme cases, a list of majors by earnings often implicitly ranks majors by how male they are. Philosophy might end up having the highest salaries of any humanities field, say, because it's entirely dominated by men; but that doesn't mean male philosophy majors make more than male history majors.
This issue is addressed in the IHE article I link above with reference to race (not sex):
Troutman said one black male student told him he didn’t want to know what he would earn -- he wanted to know what his white peer would make. So the idea was scrapped.Which is a fine point, in certain ways: to release the earnings of white men by college major instead of everyone would be interesting, if obviously crazy. But that it isn't the data they're releasing; by mish-mashing demographic characteristics, they create crazy incentive structures. If departments at state schools are going to be targeted for contraction based on their income numbers, there is now a clear route to preserving them: discriminate against women to force them out of your major, since they're more likely to experience pay discrimination, leave the workforce, work part time, or accept lower-paying jobs with more flexibility.
Having said that, the data is interesting and more fine grained than other salary data. To explore it, I look not at the actual earnings, but at the earnings deviation for each batch of students based on a linear model. For example: graduates of UT-Austin typically make about $10,000 more than graduates of UT-El Paso; graduates ten years out typically make 25,000 more than graduates one year out. So if you're comparing the salaries of ten-year-out Austin sociologists to one-year-out El Paso engineers, you should start with the baseline that the sociologists will make $35,000 more. If it's less, that's a point in the engineers' favor; if it's more, score one for sociology.
The following chart shows every major in the UT system by its deviation. A score of 1 means majors make more than you'd expect; a score of 2 means twice as much. The boxplot indicates the range of results for cohorts: one point is (eg.) the 25th-percentile income for UT-Brownsville economics majors of the class of 2003 five years out. Interpretation below.
2. Certain features appear Texas-specific. Becoming a petroleum engineer in Texas in the early 2000s is a good idea; it also may be a ship that has sailed. Geology majors' high incomes are probably related to the oil industry.
3. Business majors look better on this chart than on some other earnings indicators I've seen: often marketing (say) often looks like a poor career choice.
4. Economics has a high set of incomes: but other than that, there isn't much of a difference between humanities and social sciences. The highest-income humanists seem to come from history and English--these are also the fields that have seen the biggest drops. East Asian studies is also doing quite well.
5. STEM is not a block, and we should not be talking about "STEM majors" as if they all do equally well. Biology-affiliated fields, especially other than general biology, all do quite poorly. (By the way: it's actually not that common for bio majors to go to med school. Out of 150,000 bio majors, 10,000 go to med school each year). Zoology and ecology have earnings comparable to the lowest-paid majors overall. If you lump *any* major in with the engineers, they'll collectively have high incomes; but so what?
6. The error bars here are fairly wide for majors offered at multiple schools. History probably does make more than psychology; but the range on both is wide. Some philosophy cohorts make more than the average. Etc.
Connection between income and change in major numbers.
One other chart is possible with this data that answers a lot of questions I've had; what's the relationship between the earnings multiplier and the change in major numbers? In other words, are students actually deserting the humanities?