It pays to get a college or university degree, and it really pays to get that degree in engineering, business administration, health or the physical sciences.

That’s the conclusion of a Statistics Canada study that followed the lives of 15,166 Canadians over a 20-year period. The study, based on material from the census, looked at employment earnings of college and university graduates from 1991 through until 2010.

Among the most reliable fields for high earnings was engineering, where men with a university degree in the field earned $1.84 million over the 20 years and men with a college degree earned $1.24 million. By 2010, the final year of the study, university educated male engineers were earning about $105,300 annually.

Women in the same field, and in every field, earned considerably less, about $972,600 over the 20 years for women with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. By 2010, female engineers earned an average of $56,400.

For women, the most reliable degree for boosting their income was business administration, as those with a bachelor’s degree earned a cumulative average of $1.17 million and annual earnings hit $73,200 by 2010.

After high school, teenagers are faced with making a decision over whether to continue their education and which field to enter. The study shows that getting more education generally results in financial benefits over the next 20 years.

Wide range of incomes within fields

Within each different field of study there was a wide range of incomes, but the difference between people with a degree and those with high school diplomas was most acute.

Male bachelor’s degree grads earned about 1.7 times more than male high school graduates, and women with a bachelor’s degree earned 2.1 times more than female high school graduates.

Choosing a field of study will influence lifetime income. For women, the best choices were business administration, health, math and the physical sciences or education, all resulting in cumulative earnings of more than $1 million over a 20-year period.

Women in fine and applied arts earned, by contrast, about $652,100 over the same period.

In addition to engineering, men with bachelor’s degrees earned the most in fields such as business administration, social sciences, health, life sciences and math or the physical sciences (physics, earth sciences and chemistry.)

Men in fine and applied arts, by contrast, earned about $843,900 over the 20-year period after graduation.

Cumulative earnings over 20 years

Field of study (bachelor) Men Women
Education $1.29M $1.04M
Fine and applied arts 843,900 652,100
Humanities 1.14M 808,120
Social sciences 1.36M 824,300
Business administration 1.61M 1.17M
Life sciences 1.33M 844,900
Engineering 1.85M 972,600
Health 1.63M 1.09M
Math, physical sciences 1.61M 1.15M
All fields (bachelor) 1.52M 972,500

The report comes out the same day as the World Economic Forum’s annual ranking of countries over the gender gap, as measured by health, education, economic participation and political representation. Canada ranked 19 out of 142 countries.

 Iceland, Finland and Norway are at the top of the scale, but Canada is ahead of the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

Canada ranked high on health and education, but rather low on political empowerment because of the small number of women in political office.

The gender gap report estimated Canadian women earned about 72 per cent of men’s income for similar work. But Canadian women had made advances in both their labour force participation rate and their earned income compared to previous years.