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December 19, 2012 1:43 PM How Much Does that Major Really Matter?

By Daniel Luzer

One popular idea in higher education policy reform now is charging different prices for different majors.

Back in October Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed such a plan , under which tuition would be lower for students pursuing degrees in science and math. The idea is that since people who major in such things earn more money once they get jobs, it’s economically beneficial to students, and the state, to encourage such majors. But the truth is a little more complicated.

The connection between academic major and eventual salary is certainly legitimate in general. Engineering majors earn a median starting salary of $59,000 a year. For political science majors it’s $38,000. Visual and performing arts majors, on average, earn just $26,000 a year in their first jobs. But is it valid to assume that major really determines earnings? Not really.

According to a piece by Andrew Biggs and Abigail Haddad at The Atlantic many studies overstate the importance of college majors in determining future income. As they put it:

While skill-specific technical fields may have higher average earnings they also exhibit greater variations in earnings. For instance, an engineer can earn very high wages if his skills are in demand, but changes in technologies or markets can render his skills less valuable and retraining in a different specialty can take time. On the other hand, majors imparting more general skills have both lower average earnings and less earnings risk. A history major may not earn much, but he has a wide variety of professions to choose from. In part at least, following one of the “better” college majors may not be like winning the sweepstakes so much as purchasing a stock: higher returns, but more risk.

This is not to say that encouraging students to study specific technically subjects are a straight-up bad idea, but it’s wrong to treat college majors like career tracks. Majors merely influence salary; they don’t determine it.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer