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Published: Sunday, 5/29/2011

Investing in education

As college costs and debt rise, some experts are questioning the value of higher education. But according to a new survey, not only do university degrees have value, some majors pay off far more handsomely than others do.

Four years at Yale, Princeton, and other elite American institutions of higher learning can cost more than $200,000. Even a degree earned at a more-modest public university can cost more than $35,000, not counting room and board.

The New York Times reports that the average graduating senior in 2009 owed $24,000 in college debt. Parents and students want to be sure they get good value for their money, often defined in terms of future earnings potential.

A report by researchers at Georgetown University in Washington concludes that money invested in a college education is generally well spent. But the new report, based on Census data, also puts a number on another education truism: Majoring in math, science, engineering, and computers pays much better after graduation than getting a degree in education, counseling, psychology, art, or English.

That American society values degrees in math and science-related fields more than those in the liberal arts is not a surprise. Few poets, artists, and novelists can support themselves through their art alone. But how much more some degrees are valued is illuminating.

A person with a degree in petroleum engineering, for example, can expect to earn about $120,000 a year. In contrast, the median annual salary for counseling or psychology majors is $29,000.

The report also concludes that college majors are highly segregated by race and gender. Men are drawn to the highest-earning majors, while women gravitate toward lower-earning degrees. African-Americans and Asians earn less than whites, even in the same fields.

James Wall, global managing director of the professional services organization Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, recently told graduating seniors at his alma mater, St. Michael’s College in Burlington, Vt., that a liberal-arts education remains valuable. “My St. Michael’s experience taught me how to learn,” he said. “Nothing is more important in today’s world.”

Perhaps, but the new study suggests that what is valuable and what is valued in today’s economy are not always the same things.

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