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December 1995, Vol. 118, No. 12
Earnings of college graduates, 1993
Daniel E. Hecker
Numerous reports based on data from the Current Population Survey, the decennial census, and other surveys clearly establish that the median earnings of workers with a bachelor's or higher level degree exceed the median earnings of those with less education. These data are often interpreted to mean that a college degree is a guarantee of high earnings; frequently overlooked, however, are data indicating that some college graduates earn substantially more, and others much less, than the median.1 Furthermore, for those developing their education and career plans, not much information is available on the factors associated with high and low earnings of college graduates. This article adds to the available information with a new analysis of the variation in earnings by major field of study, degree level, and occupation. Data on earnings are provided for men and women in 31 major fields of study and 34 occupations or occupation groups.
Data limited to recent college graduates show wide variation in median earnings by field of study. Those who majored in engineering, the health fields, computer and information sciences, and the physical sciences had the highest earnings, those in education, psychology, and the humanities the lowest.2 Studies covering graduates with more work experience show similar results, but small sample sizes have restricted the possible analyses.3 The decennial census has a very large sample of college graduates who provide information about their degree levels, but not their fields of study. In April 1993, however, the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a survey of a sample of individuals under age 75 who had reported having a bachelor's or higher level degree in the 1990 decennial census. The data from this very large sample (215,000 persons) enabled the Bureau of Labor Statistics to conduct a much more detailed analysis of the relationship of field of study and degree level to earnings than any previous survey permitted.4 Based on that analysis, this article focuses primarily on the earnings of bachelor's degree graduates employed full time.5 These graduates account for 12.8 million of the more than 20 million college graduates employed full time in 1993 who reported having a college degree in the 1990 census.
The data from the 1993 NSF survey agree with findings from numerous earlier studies: median earnings of college graduates increase with degree level, and at every age and degree level, men earn substantially more than women do. Earnings also increase with age, but significantly more for men than for women. (See table 1.) Because the intent of the analysis in this article is to focus on the differences in earnings among fields of study, all earnings data are presented separately for men and women to avoid biases stemming from fields of study in which enrollments have traditionally been dominated by one sex or the other. Also, to avoid biases introduced by differences in the age distribution of workers in specific fields of study, much of the data are classified into three age groups: young (25-34), midcareer (35-44), and older (45-64) workers.6
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1 See the following articles in the Summer 1994 issue of Occupational Outlook Quarterly: Thomas A. Amirault, "Job Market Profile of College Graduates in 1992: A Focus on Earnings and Jobs," pp. 21-28; and Gary Steinberg, "The Class of '90 One Year After Graduation," pp. 11-19.
2 Steinberg, Class of '90"; and John Tsapogas, Characteristics of Recent Science and Engineering Graduates: 1990, NSF 92-316 (National Science Foundation,1992).
3 See Robert Kominski and Rebecca Sutterlin, "What's It 'Worth'? Educational Background and Economic Status: Spring 1990," Current Population Reports, Household Economic Studies, P70-32 (Bureau of the Census, December 1992), for data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation; Estelle James, Nabeel Alsalain, Joseph C. Conaty, and Duc-Le To "College Quality and Future Earnings: Where Should You Send Your Child to College?' AEA Papers and Proceedings, May 1989, pp. 247-52; and Clifford Adelman, Women at 7hirtysomething: Paradoxes ofAttaii7meiit (Department of Education, 1992), for data from the National Longitudinal Survey of the high school class of 1972.
4 The data generated from this analysis are part of the NSF'S SESTAT, a system of data about scientists and engineers. For more information, contact Kelly Kang, National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Blvd., Room 965, Arlington, VA 22230, INTERNET email@example.com, phone (703) 306-1776, or through the World Wide Web.
5 Data for earnings of college graduates employed part time were not coded for analysis in the NSF survey because of concerns that the data were n t appropriate for use in analyses.
6 These ranges divide graduates with bachelor's degrees into fairly equalized groups. In the case of graduates holding master's degrees, there are fewer in the young age group. The relatively small number of graduates aged 65 and older were excluded, because earnings tend to decline after age 64. The 25-34 age group actually has few workers aged 25 or 26, as the survey population includes only individuals who had at least a bachelor's degree 3 years earlier, at the time of the 1990 census.
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