Does Majoring in Economics Increase Your Income?

Image by Andrea D’Aquino in the Wall Street Journal.

Studying economics provides students in any major with useful tools for understanding business decision making and for evaluating government policies. As we discuss in Chapter 1, Section 1.5 of Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Economics, majoring in economics can lead to a career in business, government, or at nonprofit organizations. Many students considering majoring in economics are interested in how the incomes of economics majors compare with the incomes of students who pursue other majors.

            The Federal Reserve Bank of New York maintains a web page that uses data collected by the U.S. Census to show the incomes of people with different college majors. The following table shows for economics majors and for all majors the median annual wage received by people early in their careers and in the middle of their careers. The median is a measure of the average calculated as the annual wage at which half of people in the group have a higher annual wage and half have a lower annual wage. “Early career” refers to people aged 22 to 27, and “mid-career” refers to people aged 35 to 45.  The data are for people with a bachelor’s degree only, so people with a masters or doctoral degree are not included.  

 Median Wage Early CareerMedian Wage Mid-Career
Economics majors$55,000$93,000
All majors$42,000$70,000

The table shows that early in their careers, on average, economics majors earn an annual wage about 31 percent higher than annual wage earned by all majors. At mid-career, in percentage terms, the gap increases slightly to 33 percent.

            How should we interpret these data? In Chapter 1, Section 1.3, in discussing how to evaluate economic models, we made the important distinction between correlation and causality. Just because two things are correlated, or happen at the same time, doesn’t mean that one caused the other. In this case, are the higher than average incomes of economics majors caused by majoring in economics or is majoring in economics correlated with higher incomes, but not actually causing the higher incomes. It might be true, for instance, that on average economics majors have certain characteristics—such as being more intelligent or harder workers—than are students who choose other majors. Because being intelligent and working hard can lead to successful careers, students majoring in economics might have earned higher incomes on average even if they had chosen a different major.

(Here’s a  more advanced point about identifying causal relationships in data: The problem with determining causality described in the previous paragraph is called selection bias. Students aren’t randomly assigned majors; they choose, or self-select, them. If students with characteristics that make it more likely that they will earn high incomes are also more likely to choose to major in economics, then the higher incomes earned by economics majors weren’t caused by (or weren’t entirely caused by) majoring in economics.)

            Economists Zachary Bleemer of the University of California, Berkeley and Aashish Mehta of the University of California, Santa Barbara have found a way to evaluate whether majoring in economics causes students to earn higher incomes. The authors gathered data on all the students admitted to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) between 2008 and 2012 and on their incomes in 2017 and 2018. To major in economics, students at UCSC needed a grade point average (GPA) of 2.8 or higher in the two principles of economics courses. The authors compared the choices of majors and the average early career earnings of students who just met or just failed to meet the 2.8 GPA threshold for majoring in economics. The authors use advanced statistical analysis to reach the conclusion that: “Comparing the major choices and average wages of above-and-below-threshold students shows that majoring in economics caused a $22,000 (46 percent) increase in annual early-career wages of barely above-threshold students.” 

            The authors attribute half of the higher wages earned by economics majors to their being more likely to pursue careers in finance, insurance, real estate, and accounting, which tend to pay above average wages.  The authors note that their findings from this study “imply that students’ major choices could have financial implications roughly as large as their decision to enroll in college ….”

Sources: Federal Reserve Bank of New York, The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates,; and Zachary Bleemer and Aashish Meta, “Will Studying Economics Make You Rich? A Regression Discontinuity Analysis of the Returns to College Major,” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Vol. 14, No. 2, April 2022, pp. 1-22.

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