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Show Me the Money! Earnings by Field of Study and Education Level

By Kristine St-Laurent

Students pursuing a postsecondary education must make an important decision: what to study? The field a student chooses could be based on a combination of personal interest, ability to meet pre-requisite or entrance requirements, or costs. But what about another salient factor – future earnings?

The most recent Canadian Census data sheds useful light on labour market outcomes by level of educational attainment and cumulative earnings across fields of postsecondary study.  It turns out that income – on average - can be linked to area of study.  The data suggest that, for most people, it pays to head to school.  But not all postsecondary credentials are created equal, at least when we look at the pattern of life-time earnings.

Much of the existing literature provides earnings information for graduates by broad field of study, generally concluding that those with qualifications in more applied disciplines, such as engineering and nursing, enjoy higher earnings than graduates of arts and humanities programs.[1] This picture holds true with the most recent Canadian data as well. 

This blog uses the 2016 Census to compare mean annual earnings by field of study for bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates in Canada. Earnings are presented separately for 25 to 54-year-old men and women who worked full-year,[2] full-time[3] in 2015.[4],[5]  Overall, top earnings go to those with at least a bachelor’s degree in business, engineering, mathematics/statistics, and health disciplines.

Men: Average annual employment income[6] and level of education

In Canada, men between 25 to 54 years who worked full-year, full-time in 2015 pocketed $94,360 on average if they had a bachelor’s degree.[7] Among this group, former business students earned the most ($106,500), followed by engineering ($103,317) and math grads ($100,828). Social science graduates[8] also brought in better than average incomes, at $98,050.  At the other end of the spectrum, male bachelor’s degree holders who studied languages, fine and applied arts,[9] and library sciences ranked near the bottom.

Figure 1. Men, Bachelor’s graduates, ages 25 to 54, average annual employment income, Canada, 2015
 
Men who went on to get a master’s degree saw an added boost to their incomes. On average, male master’s graduates earned $112,116 in 2015 – 17% more than men with only a bachelor’s degree.  Coming out on top again are master’s graduates in business, engineering, math and health-related disciplines. But significant income gains were also evident between bachelor’s and master’s degree holders in library sciences (annual earnings increased by $24,553); public administration (up by $17,641); and education (up by $15,662).  
 
Figure 2. Men, Master’s graduates, ages 25 to 54, average annual employment income, Canada, 2015
 
 Table 1: Men, ages 25 to 54, annual average earnings, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, 2015
 

Field of Study

Annual Average Earnings, Bachelor’s Degree (Men)

Annual Average Earnings, Master's Degree (Men)

Agriculture

$74,194

$79,442

Architecture

$79,833

$84,441

Biological & biomedical sciences

$80,430

$84,848

Business

$106,540

$149,774

Communication, journalism

$72,391

$77,064

Computer information sciences

$89,476

$91,989

Education

$74,859

$90,521

Engineering

$103,317

$107,565

English language & literature

$70,928

$75,957

French language

$70,284

$64,283

Foreign languages, linguistics

$63,373

$64,632

Gender, ethnic studies

$67,324

$71,210

Health professions, nursing

$83,173

$98,295

History

$85,168

$87,174

Liberal arts

$76,488

$80,253

Library science

$52,822

$77,375

Mathematics & statistics

$100,828

$97,754

Natural resources

$87,055

$85,238

Philosophy & religious studies

$72,219

$67,592

Physical sciences

$94,139

$93,907

Psychology

$79,373

$79,930

Public administration

$71,774

$89,415

Social sciences

$98,050

$98,319

Theology

$58,225

$62,092

Visual & performing arts

$57,455

$61,467

 

Women: Average annual employment income and level of education

On average, women with bachelor’s degrees brought in $68,759 in 2015. Female engineers pulled in top dollars, with average earnings of $82,309, while math graduates were second with $76,492.  There is a notable difference between men and women in the relative ranking of bachelor’s level health/nursing graduates. Female health/nursing undergraduates earn the third highest incomes at $75,923, while this is the ninth-highest earning field of study for men.  Annual earnings are also high for women with degrees in computer science and business -- over $73,000 in each case.  Like men, female bachelor’s degree holders who studied fine arts, library science and gender studies reported among the lowest earnings.

Figure 3. Women, Bachelor’s graduates, ages 25 to 54, average annual employment income, Canada, 2015

Women who graduated from a master’s program scaled up their earnings by 17% - the same as men – on average earning $81,194. Female MBAs experienced a significant income bump, bringing in $101,578 – a 32% improvement over bachelor’s earnings.  Engineering, nursing and math remained among the top-paying fields for women with master’s degrees.  Earnings gains between female undergraduate and graduate degree holders are notable in library sciences (a rise in annual earnings of $29,602); public administration (master’s graduates earn $15,681 more); and education (up by $12,740).  

Figure 4. Women, Master’s graduates, ages 25 to 54, average annual employment income, Canada, 2015 

 Table 2: Women, ages 25 to 54, annual average earnings, Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, 2015

Field of Study

Annual Average Earnings, Bachelor’s Degree (Women)

Annual Average Earnings, Master’s Degree (Women)

Agriculture

$58,388

$67,361

Architecture

$62,948

$70,294

Biological & biomedical sciences

$65,293

$75,727

Business

$73,233

$101,578

Communication, journalism

$62,150

$70,073

Computer information sciences

$73,633

$76,989

Education

$66,423

$79,163

Engineering

$82,309

$85,428

English language & literature

$62,568

$60,919

French language

$64,300

$66,221

Foreign languages, linguistics

$57,358

$58,752

Gender, ethnic studies

$58,660

$68,198

Health professions, nursing

$75,723

$82,459

History

$62,782

$70,022

Liberal arts

$58,214

$58,056

Library science

$45,055

$74,657

Mathematics & statistics

$76,492

$82,043

Natural resources

$66,651

$72,337

Philosophy & religious studies

$56,894

$62,137

Physical sciences

$71,455

$73,267

Psychology

$61,976

$68,282

Public administration

$62,182

$77,863

Social sciences

$67,097

$74,666

Theology

$46,623

$62,259

Visual & performing arts

$50,366

$54,518

 

The Takeaway

The lesson here is that more education generally leads to greater employment earnings.  For those who are deliberating about what to specialize in or considering furthering their education, it makes sense to pay at least some attention to earnings by field of study. 

 


[1] See Ross Finnie’s work with the Education Policy Research Initiative, http://www.epri.ca/

See Marc Frenette’s work,  https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11f0019m/11f0019m2014359-eng.htm

[4] Given the wide range of age ranges (which, according to Statistics Canada, is required to produce adequate sample sizes), the data is age-adjusted.

[5] This analysis does not examine differences in earnings between men and women; it only compares earnings across field of study for individuals of the same sex and level of completed education. Statistics Canada Census data does not include many of the key variables that have been associated with the gender wage gap. For more discussion of gender wage differentials, see my colleague Denise Mullen’s recent study, Women and Work: An Analysis of the Changing British Columbia Labour Market.

[6] Dental, medical, veterinary, pharmacy and law programs not included.

[7] In 2015 dollars.

[8] Statistics Canada defines social sciences as anthropology, archeology, economics, geography, environmental science, political science, psychology, sociology and social work.

[9] Fine arts, music, performing arts, visual graphics.