The Cumulative Earnings of Postsecondary Graduates Over 20 Years: Results by Field of Study

When students graduate from high school, they make at least two educational decisions that affect the rest of their lives. The first is whether to pursue a higher level of education. The literature clearly demonstrates that postsecondary graduates tend to fare better in terms of labour force participation, unemployment, and earnings than do people with less education. Students who choose to enter a postsecondary program must make a second decision: what to study. Canadian evidence on labour market outcomes by field of study is limited. Research has generally been based on cross-sectional informationNote 1 or on longitudinal data with limited scope;Note 2 until recently, national-level data have not been available to observe and quantify long-term cumulative outcomes associated with education. However, with the development of new, national longitudinal administrative data, this is now possible. A recent study, in fact, found considerable differences in cumulative earnings across levels of educational attainment.Note 3 This study extends that research by examining the cumulative employment earnings of graduates of different fields of study over a 20-year period. Employment earnings include paid wages and salaries, as well as net proceeds from self-employment. The analysis is based on a sample of 15,166 college and bachelor’s degree graduates who were aged 26 to 35 in 1991. Information about their level of education and field of study was obtained from their responses to the 1991 Census long questionnaire; information about their employment earnings over the subsequent 20 years was taken from their T1 Income Tax Returns.Note 4 This study documents three aspects of earnings by field of study: (i) differences in median cumulative earnings across fields of study; (ii) the distribution of cumulative earnings within fields of study; and (iii) the trajectories of annual median earnings within fields of study over the life course of graduates.

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