According to a study of lifetime earnings of graduates across 80 different majors by a respected economic think-tank in the US, students in several disciplines within the engineering field can expect to out-earn most of their counterparts in other majors over the course of their career.

Releasing an analysis of data from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, researchers Brad Hershbein and Melissa Kearney from The Hamilton Project estimate that graduates of four disciplines – chemical engineering, aerospace engineering, energy and extraction engineering and computer engineering  – could expect to earn a median aggregate total of more than $US2 million in current dollar terms over the course of their working lives,

Those in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, industrial and manufacturing engineering, general engineering and computer science rounded out the top 10.

Indeed, lifetime earnings of graduate in most engineering fields were two to two and a half times as much as the lowest ranked majors of early childhood education (lowest ranked), family and consumer sciences and theology and religious vocations – a phenomenon which survives even when the effect of the prevalence of part-time workers in some of the latter occupations is stripped out.

The results show that within individual occupations, lifetime earnings expectations vary significantly between those with university degrees and those without and between the highest and lowest earning workers with a degree within that profession.

It shows that, at least from a financial perspective, the benefits associated with university qualifications generally outweigh the costs involved in studying, and that earnings are influenced by factors other than educational attainment (presumably levels of responsibility/managerial authority or whether or not the individual concerned has equity ownership or is simply an employee).

In civil engineering, for example, the average high school graduate brings in just $570,000 over his/her lifetime – less than a third of the $1.76 million a university graduate counterpart can expect to earn.

Within that same occupation, those at the 90th percentile of earnings distribution will take in around $3.02 million during their lifetime against $1.10 million for those at the 20th percentile mark, despite both possessing bachelor degrees.

It should be noted, however, that the analysis is not exhaustive of all occupations and does not include high-earning occupations such as medicine and law – presumably because the financial value of university degrees in these occupations is beyond question.

The authors also note that decisions regarding career paths should not be made on the basis of financial considerations alone.

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Still, they say the analysis provides students and parents with valuable information about the financial implications of different career choices and policy makers with useful data for decisions regarding educational investments and financial aid.

They add that the data provides students with confidence that college degrees will pay off in the long run.

“As college students begin another year of classes, few of them have good knowledge of what their earnings for their chosen field of study are likely to be,” they said. “The good news is that no matter what their major, they are likely to earn more over their careers than those with less education.”

“College degrees may not be a guarantee of higher income, but they come closer than just about any other investment one can make.”