Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

How much is a college degree worth? Quite a lot, for students who major in chemical engineering. Their median lifetime earnings are more than $2 million.

But the median lifetime earnings of students who major in early childhood education – about $770,000 — is less than that of any other college major including social work, theology, fine arts and elementary education.

This disappointing news comes from a report — “Major Decisions: What Graduates Learn Over Their Lifetimes” — released last month by the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution.

“Drawing upon data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, we examine earnings for approximately 80 majors, focusing on both annual earnings for each year of the career and cumulative lifetime earnings,” the report explains.

Among the key findings:

“Majors that train students to work with children or provide counseling services tend to have graduates with the lowest earnings.”

“Even in the lowest-earning major, early childhood education, the median bachelor’s graduate earns more at every point during the career than does the median high school graduate.”

According to a Washington Post article, “The researchers estimate that even when college costs are taken into account, the median early childhood education major still makes 10 percent to 15 percent more than the median American with just a high school degree.”

Hamilton’s chart of all 80 majors is posted here. There is also an interactive feature that lets users graph majors and their annual and lifetime earnings.

The Policy Implications

The report offers this warm-hearted caveat: “future earnings are not the only factor in choosing a major: personal enjoyment, engaging in meaningful work, and filling a social need should all also enter into a student’s decision-making.”

That’s true, but policymakers should also be taking a hard look at the salaries of early educators because high-quality preschool programs need high-quality teachers. These teachers should have the skills and professional development it takes to help children enter a pipeline of success that starts with being kindergarten-ready, growing into a proficient third-grade reader, graduating from high school, and being able to compete in college and/or a career.

As we blogged last week, one crucial way to attract and retain more of these teachers is to pay them well.

College scholarships for early education majors can also attract more promising students and protect them from taking on more student loans than they can reasonably expect to pay.

In a 2011 report, the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children explained: “What truly matters in the discussion of overall compensation for a field is not only salary, but also the cost of doing what is necessary to enter a profession, maintain one’s credentials, and fulfill any professional development requirements mandated by governing bodies.”

That’s a key point given the federal expectation that, “High-quality preschool programs must include, at a minimum, teachers with bachelors degrees and professional development for all teachers and staff.”

The Bessie Tartt Wilson report, “An Early Educator’s Dilemma: Balancing Educational Aspirations and Student Loan Burden,” is available here.

More to Come

The Hamilton Project plans to release two more parts to this study.

“The second part will explore earnings growth over the career, and the third will include an interactive calculator that shows the share of earnings—for each of the 80 majors studied here—that are needed to repay student debt in early career.”

This information should help individual students make better choices about their future. But policymakers should also pay close attention so that they can come up with new ways to attract more skilled candidates to the early education field.

As Mike Petters, the president and CEO of Huntington Ingalls Industries, said in a recent speech to the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, investing in early education is “a human capital investment for the good of the country.”