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Blog Post · October 21, 2021

College and Major Can Matter A Lot for Starting Wages

photo - UCLA Campus Building

Students across California now have an updated tool to help them choose where to go to college and what to study. Using the revised US Department of Education College Scorecard—which collects information on cost, student success, debt, and income associated with each college—students can easily compare colleges across the nation on the same metrics. And now, the College Scorecard lets students see how much future income can vary by the major they choose at the colleges they are considering.

We have shown before that typical earnings by college can differ considerably. For example, median earnings for three Los Angeles colleges within 25 miles of each other can differ by up to $14,000, as shown in the table below. However, those differences are small compared to the range of earnings within an institution. Earnings for a graduate of UCLA can vary by over $100,000—from $13,900 to $128,000 at the 10th percentile of earners versus the 90th. Field of study plays a role in wages and likely explains some of the differences in earnings within and between institutions.

The Department of Education recently changed how they collect data for the College Scorecard, and the tool now shows earnings across field of study—but so far only for those who graduated in 2018 and 2019. The figure below shows the range of median earnings by field, with the least income a student might earn after attending a typical California college at the low end and the most income in that field from a college at the high end. Note that the data cover only first- and second-year earnings for those who are working—it doesn’t consider those who enroll in more schooling such as master’s programs or medical school.

By comparing fields, we see that people from nursing and computer science fields typically earn more than those in psychology and biology, for instance. However, not all students from all institutions gain the same returns on their degrees—a computer science graduate who attends a college on the lower end of the scale may earn about $63,000 while a graduate at the higher end may earn about $136,000. There is considerable overlap between fields given these large ranges.

Students comparing public institutions in California can already access some information about earnings, as the University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges provide data and dashboards that estimate earnings for their graduates that extend a decade or more. Both data sources have limitations. The College Scorecard is limited to those who receive federal financial aid, and the UC, CSU, and CCC data don’t account for the self-employed, federal workers, and workers who move out of state. The scorecard is also limited to recent graduates, but it will become more comprehensive over time, as more students enter the workforce and as students who are already working increase their wages.

The College Scorecard offers lessons for California and the recently passed Cradle to Career Data System, which will link student records to wage records. With the data system, the state plans to create tools to support parents and students in their college and career planning. Access to comparable information about earnings by major and institutions can help students better develop career goals as they begin their college search.


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