A summer homework assignment

Last week The Atlantic published this article by Joe Pinsker titled "Rich Kids Study English." It's a really fascinating piece that I hope you'll take the time to read, but here's the main idea: "the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward 'useful' majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts." Hence the title. Pinsker looks at several explanations and unanswered questions about this connection with having wealthier parents and choosing lower-paying career paths. "It’s speculative," he says, "but richer students might be going on to take lower-paying jobs because they have the knowledge that their parents’ money will arrive eventually."

While the premise makes sense--if your family has more money and support then you can afford not to worry about paychecks as much when choosing your college classes--it's not the full picture.

Even if professionals in higher-paying jobs tend to come from lower-income families, there's also evidence that almost nobody pays much attention to future earnings when choosing their college path. According to Isaac Carey's recent article in The Hechinger Report, students in a program that offered them much more detailed information about average income for college graduates, sorted by school and area of study, didn't use the data. They had access to numbers about how much people with certain degrees from certain schools make, but there was no indication that the data was part of the participating students' decisions.

Why do students overlook this kind of information? One of the study's authors says it may be due to students being "overwhelmed with information about colleges." There's already too much to sift through, and another website with employment data points just isn't compelling enough.

I'm going to add my own speculation: perhaps the income information isn't very compelling because high school students, pretty much at the earliest stages of their career path by definition, have very little frame of reference to understand the data. When I was in high school, I knew that doctors and engineers made more money than teachers and waiters--I didn't need to look up data to know that. But if, for example, you had told me the median annual income for police officers, I wouldn't know if that number was a lot of money or not. Honestly, when I was in high school anything more than a hundred bucks seemed like a whole lot of money.

But you can build up some context pretty quickly, and that's where the homework comes in. I'll give you these numbers: the median income in the United States, considering hundreds of millions of workers at all income levels and ages, is around $56,000. A little over $9,000 of that was paid in federal taxes. So use that as your starting point.

Now, do some research and try to find some other reference points. It's not important that you get the perfect, "right" answer. It's important that you have a sense of just how much income varies. As much as possible, try to find local numbers, not national averages. Ready?

How much money does your family make? Define your family however you see fit, and ask. Your family may not want to talk about this--many people are very uncomfortable talking about money. But remind them that if you're going to apply for financial aid, you're going to have to talk about these numbers. 

What is the minimum wage where you live? How much money does that add up to if you work 30 hours a week? 40 hours?

How much do teachers make in your school district? What about principals?

How much do nurses make in your area? Doctors? These figures are likely a bit lower if you live in a rural area.

How much do lawyers make in your area? Again, this is likely to be more if you live in a big city with corporate law firms, less if you're in a small town.

How much does a manager at a retail store--like Best Buy or Walmart--make?

Once you have a sense of these numbers, now go and look up the median salary for people with degrees in some of the majors you're interested in. Those numbers will make more sense when you have something to compare them to.

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