Federal Education Data Show Male-Female Wage Gap Among Young College Graduates Remains High

Conventional wisdom has it that young men and women tend to earn similar wages as young adults, but that the male-female gap widens a lot with age, especially as women “lean out” during their child-bearing years. The Pew Research Center, for example, calculated that young adult women (ages 25-34) earned 93 cents for each dollar that her male counterpart earned in 2012. Near parity.

But the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of 17,110 students who graduated in the 2007-2008 academic year, found that college-graduate women aren’t making anywhere near as much as their male counterparts are four years after college graduation.

The men who were in full time jobs made $57,800 on average. The women in full time jobs made $47,400 on average. In other words, these women, most of them unmarried and without children, were earning only 82 cents for each dollar that a man was in 2012.

The data, from the Baccalaureate and Beyond surveys, comes from the third group of college graduates that the United States Department of Education is tracking to see what happens in labor markets after college. This third group was first surveyed a year after graduation, in 2009. A second survey followed up four years after graduation, in 2012, and some of the data, largely focusing on post-college employment and wages, were released on July 8, 2014.

Women’s lower earnings defy easy explanation.

Part of the answer is that women and men tend to major in different subjects and go into different fields. Women are far more likely to pursue degrees in education and nursing, two fields which tend to be dominated by unionized jobs with low starting salaries. Higher salaries that come with seniority generally kick in after four years. Meanwhile, men are more likely to major in engineering, which is the major that produced the highest paying post-college jobs. College graduates who majored in engineering and were working full time earned $73,700 a year on average. Healthcare majors made $58,900 and education majors made $40,500.

Majors of 2008 Graduates by Gender (percent of each gender majoring in that subject)

Women Men
1 Business (20%) Business (28%)
2 Social sciences (17%) Other Applied (14%)
3 Other Applied (16%) Social Sciences (13%)
4 Humanities (12%) Engineering (12%)
5 Education (12%) Humanities (11%)
6 Healthcare fields (11%) Bio and phys science, sci tech, math and agriculture (9%)
7 Bio and phys science, sci tech, math and agriculture (7%) Computer and IT (5%)
8 General studies and other (3%) Education (4%)
9 Engineering (2%) General studies and other (3%)
10 Computer and IT (1%) Healthcare fields (2%)

Source: Computed using National Center for Education Statistics QuickStats and data from 2008/12 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (B&B:08/12)

But that is only part of the story. When you break the salary data down by major and gender (using the Department of Education’s Quickstat data analysis tool), you see giant wage discrepancies among men and women who majored in the same subjects. The chart I created on this page shows that young male engineers make more than young female engineers ($73,000 vs. $65,000)*. Young male computer programers make more than young female computer programers ($71,000 vs. $60,000).  There’s even a big gender gap for social sciences majors ($51,000 vs. $40,000) and general studies majors ($64,000 vs. $44,000). However, the pay gap virtually disappears in education ($41,000 vs. $39,000) and health care ($59,000 vs. $56,000).

Using the Powerstats data analysis tool, I dug into the data more to look at the interplay of race and gender. And there are some startling results. Asian women were earning almost $53,000 a year — more than either black or Latino men and not far behind white men. Black men earned $52,000. Latino men earned $47,000. The top earners were Asian men at $63,000, followed by white men at $57,000.  White, black and Latino women are closely clustered together, making $45,000, $43,000 and $44,000, respectively.

I was curious if child rearing was having an effect on this data. For an apples-to-apples comparison, I created a second Powerstats chart to isolate only childless men and women. Some were married. Some were not. The wage levels and differentials described above remained. Even childless women earn far less than childless men. Asians earn more than other races. Black men fare better than Latino men.

It is possible that some of these salary gaps are the quirks of a four-year check up after college. Many of the graduates who will be the highest earners over the course of their lifetimes are in graduate school, earning their JD’s, MD’s and MBA’s. As full-time students, they’re excluded from the full-time employment data. And that means the data is a bit skewed by the people who go into high-paying fields that don’t require graduate degrees, such as engineering and computer science. Perhaps, once all the female lawyers and doctors join the workforce a few years from now, the gender pay gap will narrow some.

Data notes: I filtered the data to capture only students who are working more than 34 hours a week in one primary job. It does not include students who were in graduate school in 2012. All the salary figures are rounded to the nearest thousand. The numbers generated through the statistical tools do not add up exactly to the numbers in the published 2008/12 Baccalaureate and Beyond report. For example, the breakdown of male salaries by major show that men of all 10 majors had an average full time salary of almost $56,000. The report says that male salaries were almost $58,000. That may be due to some differences in weighting.

* This and subsequent salary data rounded to the nearest thousand dollars

[Cross-posted at the Hechinger Report]

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.