When it comes to lifetime earnings, we know that higher educational attainment matters, but not all degrees are equal as far as post-college and lifetime salary potential. In previous examinations of conditions that might contribute to the gap between men and women’s annual earnings, we took a look at the growth rate of bachelor’s and above degree holders among women and men and saw that beginning in the 1980s, there was a sharp uptick in the rates of female degree holders. So if women are attaining the degrees, then could the issue be that they’re selecting majors that lack the same earning power as their male counterparts, as some schools of thought would like to hold?
Below, we’re taking a look at the current state of affairs for higher educational attainment by gender. As it stands in the MSA, women account for 54 percent of residents age 25 and older with a bachelor’s or greater, and among both men and women, those in their middle years make up the majority of degree holders.
Below, we are examining what types of degrees are held by women and men in these age groups. One caveat worth noting: The data only show the field of study for the first major of these groups. This means that if someone, say, double majored, a second field of study would not be accounted for. Likewise if someone went from an undergraduate degree in English literature to a STEM graduate degree, only the English degree would show up in these data.
Two very clear observations from the charts are that (1) there is a much greater degree of variability by age among women degree holders than men, and (2) that men of all age groups are much more likely to study science and engineering than other subjects. Another item of much note – and one that hits squarely at hypotheses around the gender pay gap – is the size of the younger age cohort of women studying science and engineering. Here, we see that there is a steady increase in the share of degrees as you move to younger generations, so much so that 31 percent of women ages 25 to 39 obtained their first degrees in science and engineering compared to 19.7 percent of women ages 65+. Among women ages 65 and older, the most popular degree field is education, and this type also has the sharpest decline as you move to younger age groups.
And as for that middle-aged group that makes up the bulk of our graduates? Women tend to hold more business degrees, with science and engineering taking a close second. Among men, science and engineering are the most common, with business coming in a distant second.