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Bachelor's Degrees: Just What Are They Worth?

Bachelor's Degrees: Just What Are They Worth?

Bachelor's degrees are becoming increasingly important to landing good jobs that pay well. But how do you learn about what college majors go with what jobs? What are the jobs for people with an English degree, a background in computer science or those who studied economics? There's no set answer, experts say, because picking a major doesn't always mean picking a career.

By Kristina Cowan

Growing up, Saretta Holler always knew she wanted to write. She explored her options as college drew near, thinking she'd go into journalism. But after realizing she could pursue writing in public relations and make more money, she opted to study PR at San Diego State University and graduated in 1999.

Holler's story begs the question: What's the value of a subject-specific bachelor's degree?

That depends on the subject, experts say. In Holler's case, the PR degree paid off. She said it helped her get her current job as the marketing communications manager at Kettley, a financial technology firm, and the CEO told her as much. Other degrees, such as those in computer science or computer engineering, also equip students with specialized skill sets and lead to specific jobs and salary ranges, according to experts.

For example, the median salary for someone with a computer science degree and less than one year of experience is $49,756, PayScale salary information shows. Individuals with computer science degrees who work as senior software engineers report a median salary of $87,534, while those serving as computer programmers earn $48,740.

What about jobs for people with an English degree?

Liberal arts degrees in disciplines like English or economics don't necessarily lead to the same types of careers. Dr. Katharine S. Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin, offered the example of two recent UT grads who majored in English. One went to work at AmeriCorps, earning a $10,000 salary, while another pulled in $52,000 at a job in marketing.

"They're not career-specific majors like electrical engineers. If they major in that then they're electrical engineers, and you get a basic range of salaries in that field. But in English, it's non-specific, and their opportunities are so wide-open. It depends what they want to go into, so their salary will very much correlate with the field or the job title," Brooks said.

According to PayScale salary information, a UT-Austin graduate with up to one year of experience can expect to earn an average salary of $42,500 a year.

The More You Learn, The More You Earn

A bachelor's degree is a good idea no matter what the major, experts say, because earnings tend to rise as education levels increase.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, between 1980 and 2005 "young adults with at least a bachelor's degree consistently had higher median earnings than those with less education." In 2005, male workers ages 25-34 with a high school diploma or GED had a median income of $29,600, while those with a bachelor's degree or higher earned $48,400. Among women with the same characteristics, those with a high school diploma or GED made $23,500, and their counterparts with bachelor's degrees or higher earned $39,500.

And while it may be difficult to pinpoint the value of a liberal arts degree, there are some ball-park figures available. A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers offers a glimpse into the average starting salaries for a variety of majors. English majors receive an average offer of $32,553, economics majors get $48,483, and starting wages for computer science graduates are somewhat higher, at $53,396.

Picking A Major: For Love or Money

Mentioning the value of a degree generally stirs thoughts of salaries and money. Ideally, though, a degree helps its owner follow his or her passions.

Holler said her initial interest was in journalism, but studying PR proved a better fit because she uses her verbal and written communication skills, which she enjoys.

Andrea Koncz, NACE's employment information manager, said the group has found "over the years that students choose their majors based upon what they 'like to do.'" She pointed to NACE's 2006 survey of graduating students and alumni, which says 67 percent of respondents indicated they chose a major because they liked the work it would enable them to do. Only 6 percent picked their majors based on earning potential.

Brooks of UT-Austin said in a past job she advised pre-med students; when some didn't get into medical school, instead of pursuing other health-related careers, they opted for investment banking or consulting.

"They wanted something high-paying, that's why they were going to medical school in the first place," she explained. "You'll look at any field that will pay you what you want to earn."

Kristina Cowan is the senior writer for PayScale.com. She has over 10 years of journalism experience, specializing in education and workforce issues. Email Kristina Cowan.

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