American Sociological Association

Field of Study in College and Lifetime Earnings in the United States

Our understanding about the relationship between education and lifetime earnings often neglects differences by field of study. Utilizing data that match respondents in the Survey of Income and Program Participation to their longitudinal earnings records based on administrative tax information, we investigate the trajectories of annual earnings following the same individuals over 20 years and then estimate the long-term effects of field of study on earnings for U.S. men and women. Our results provide new evidence revealing large lifetime earnings gaps across fields of study. We show important differences in individuals’ earnings trajectories across different stages of the work life by field of study. In addition, the gaps in 40-year (i.e., ages 20 to 59) median lifetime earnings among college graduates by field of study are larger, in many instances, than the median gap between high school graduates and college graduates overall. We also find significant variation among graduate degree holders. Our results uncover important similarities and differences between men and women with regard to the long-term earnings differentials associated with field of study. In general, these findings underscore field of study as a critical dimension of horizontal stratification in educational attainment.


Kim, C., Tamborini, C. R., Sakamoto, A.





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