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What Major Makes The Most Money

By David Krug David Krug is the CEO & President of Bankovia. He's a lifelong expat who has lived in the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, and Colombia. When he's not reading about cryptocurrencies, he's researching the latest personal finance software. 11 minute read

Students are increasingly taking on debt to cover the ever-increasing costs of attending college. That’s why a lot of high school grads and their parents are doubtful about the value of higher education. Whether or if you can recoup the money you put into college through a higher-paying job is a major one.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that college graduates earn a disproportionate share of the national income compared to their non-graduate counterparts. However, there are a few ways in which the field of study you choose can affect your future earnings.

Why Your Major in College Might Be Important

Graduates’ choice of major ranked second on PayScale’s 2019 list of things they wish they hadn’t done differently while in college, behind only accruing too much debt. Many graduates obviously think their major decision had an effect on their employment prospects.

Indeed, there is a wealth of evidence suggesting that the choice of major might impact the value of your degree. Multiple studies demonstrate a striking difference in earnings potential and happiness levels among majors.

1. Lifetime Earnings Are Lower for Some Degrees

According to research conducted in 2015 by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, college graduates may expect to earn nearly $1 million more than those who stopped their education after high school.

Unfortunately, not all college grads enjoy a salary of that magnitude. It’s been estimated that there’s a $3.4 million gap between the average salary of college graduates and those without degrees.

Recently, a 2021 research by public policy organization Third Way evaluated the value of tens of thousands of certificate programs, associate degrees, and undergraduate majors using data collected for the federal Education Department’s College Scorecard platform.

According to Third Way, the average return on investment for a bachelor’s degree is under ten years. However, for some students, college was a waste of time. These fields of study tend to produce graduates who earn less than their counterparts who merely have a high school diploma. 

For example:

  • Drama
  • Dance
  • Film and studio arts
  • Visual arts
  • Video arts
  • Music
  • Zoology
  • Ecology
  • Anthropology
  • Religious studies

A degree in any of these areas may not lead to a high salary, but it also won’t hurt your prospects. Even Third Way found that, among these degree-granting schools, college students typically earned more than high school grads in all fields except theater, dance, and zoology.

The findings of the Brookings Institute are consistent with these. Early childhood education and visual and performing arts were the only two of the 98 majors evaluated whose entry-level salaries were lower than those of those with a high school certificate, and this was only true at the end of the career.

If you have your heart set on one of these professions, you can maximize your earnings potential by reducing your financial outlay during higher education.

2. Some Degrees May Lead to Careers with Higher Pay

Third Way found that many majors can recoup their costs in fewer than five years. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and healthcare careers are common examples.

Education in these fields typically pays for itself rapidly and leads to very high wages and, thus, a very comfortable living. This conclusion is consistent with the results of studies conducted by both the Georgetown Education Center and the Brookings Institute.

Third Way has found that the following degrees are guaranteed to be profitable quickly:

  • Petroleum engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Industrial engineering
  • Engineering (general)
  • Engineering technology
  • Construction engineering technologies
  • Quality control and safety technicians 
  • Dental support services 
  • Registered Nursing 

3. Some Degree Holders Are Better Employable Than Others

The choice of major should be based on more than just the potential for a high starting pay. Some fields of study may be more marketable to potential employers than others.

According to LinkedIn statistics, for instance, the highest-paying and most-desired occupations of 2021 will require a bachelor’s degree. However, many of these careers call for very specific academic training, and consequently, they tend to be rather selective. That is to say, they are not normally something that can be done by just about everyone.

LinkedIn’s job listings, such as those for psychotherapists, registered nurses, and elementary school teachers, all necessitate certain degrees. A nursing degree is required to work as a nurse, for instance.

While a degree in computer science is typically required for positions like Web development, you may be able to acquire the necessary technical abilities through self-study. A degree in computer science or Web development, however, will undoubtedly improve your employment prospects.

However, focusing too narrowly could end up being a mistake. According to ZipRecruiter, a student’s decision to major should be based on more than just salary expectations or the availability of open positions.

Many jobs may not exist by the time you graduate or shortly afterward as a result of technical, cultural, and political shifts. Even global catastrophes with far-reaching societal effects, such as the coronavirus pandemic, can trigger their demise or decline in demand. There is also the possibility that the value of a job could shift as a result of changes in external circumstances.

For instance, the number of available jobs in traditional newsrooms has dropped dramatically over the past decade as a result of shifts in how Americans consume the news. In addition, the Pew Research Center reports that the rise of digital-native occupations is not keeping pace.

You can lessen the likelihood of this happening to you by pursuing a double major. Even if the employment market has a high demand for your major, you might still benefit from pursuing a second major.

You can specialize in finance journalism, write digital content like blog posts, newsletters, social media posts, and podcasts for a financial services organization, or move into a financial services role, all with a secondary major in finance.

A poll conducted in 2018 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 82 percent of businesses surveyed prioritize candidates with strong written communication abilities. Teamwork, problem-solving, and the ability to communicate well orally are also highly sought after.

As a result of your exceptional interpersonal skills, you now have a higher chance of being promoted, and even landing a management position in the future, expanding your career options and providing you with a fallback degree in case your primary field of study becomes unemployed.

4. Many Graduates Express Regret Over Their Major Choice.

The PayScale survey isn’t the first one to find that graduates frequently lament their decision to major. Nearly two-thirds of college alums in a poll by 2020’s Best Colleges expressed disappointment in their final decision.

A few of them admitted they were kicking themselves for not following their true calling. Thirty percent of students said they would switch fields of study if it meant getting a better career.

The availability of financial aid is an important consideration while selecting a major. After all, the PayScale study found that the degrees that students end up regretting the most are the ones that offer the lowest starting salaries. And it can add to the stress of already high levels of student loan debt.

Nearly half of millennials with outstanding student loan debt in 2019’s Insider and Morning Consult survey said they now regret attending college. It’s possible that choosing a major that leads to a high-paying job may make college feel more worthwhile overall.

However, financial success is not the only measure of success. High-paying science majors and low-paying arts majors were revealed to be among the most regretted choices in a 2021 ZipRecruiter study, even after controlling for employment happiness, stress, and prospects.

In addition, according to PayScale’s annual college wage study, majors like teaching and social services aren’t always the highest earning but are often the most fulfilling. However, most of the highest-paying degrees are not among the most meaningful.

When deciding on a major, it’s important to weigh the financial rewards against other factors, such as the likelihood of experiencing stress on the job and the availability of meaningful work.

Why It May Not Matter What Your College Major Is

According to the data, choosing the right major might have a significant impact on your future performance in your chosen field. However, this is based on the false premise that studying a particular subject in college guarantees a certain professional path.

In most cases, a degree from college is not a necessary prerequisite for a certain job, with the exception of preprofessional majors like nursing. Data analysts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported in 2014 that only 27% of college grads are employed in their primary field.

There are several elements outside your major that affect your career and income prospects.

1. The Job Market is Always Changing

The World Economic Forum predicts that 65 percent of today’s kindergarteners will one day be employed in occupations that don’t even exist. College students today are therefore likely to find work in fields they never considered.

Since that’s the case, picking the perfect major to complement your chosen profession is a daunting task.

The New York Times quotes Dr. Douglas A. Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, as saying that choosing a major based on the jobs that are in demand right now is a gamble.

Because of advances in technology and the rise of automated processes, these vocations may soon become obsolete. That’s why adaptability is always at the top of LinkedIn’s annual list of the most sought-after soft talents.

2. Today’s Jobs Need a Variety of Skills

Jobs in new industries often require knowledge from multiple disciplines, which is another reason why talents may be more important than majors. Therefore, if you limit your education to only one field, you might not acquire the transferable abilities that would make you marketable to potential jobs.

For instance, it’s not uncommon for well-intentioned parents and counselors to pressure students into STEM majors in the hopes that doing so will better prepare them for a career in the lucrative IT industry.

However, a 2015 LinkedIn research indicated that rather than recruiting people with degrees in computer science and engineering, tech organizations are now favoring those with degrees in the liberal arts. That’s probably because tech firms want to hire programmers who can make their products more approachable to regular people.

That’s why sites like ZipRecruiter urge users to highlight transferable abilities rather than specific degrees. And a multifaceted education can help you develop useful talents regardless of your major. Among these are the “soft” abilities of adaptability, flexibility, problem-solving, and clear and concise communication.

Jobs today, according to George Anders, author of “You Can Do Anything; The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education,” requires a wide range of talents that can’t be acquired through a single academic discipline. He and others contend that the most effective approach to getting ready for the unpredictable future of work is to have a well-rounded education, such as that offered by a liberal arts college.

No matter what your degree is, expanding your skill set is a surefire way to increase your employability. According to research published in 2013 by Burning Glass Technologies, a company that analyzes employment trends, liberal arts graduates’ employment prospects practically quadruple when they acquire technological skills such as data analysis and computer programming.

As a corollary, the inverse must also be correct. Success in the IT industry may be more attainable, for instance, for programmers who focus on their “soft skills,” such as their ability to work well with others and communicate well.

3. Many Employers Don’t Care What You Studied.

According to a 2021 survey by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, 4 out of 5 employers would be more inclined to hire a job applicant who had undertaken an internship or applied experience while in college, including work-study programs, portfolios, mentorships, or study abroad. 

All of them were regarded as more significant than the principal choice. Employers place a high value on practical training that exposes students to individuals from various racial and cultural backgrounds. 

Employers also awarded a little more credit for engaging in a variety of academic coursework and subjects than they did for concentrating on things like STEM sectors when it came to academics.

The degree of flexibility in the employment market is something that many students are unaware of. For instance, some people think that majoring in English has limited employment opportunities. Beyond teaching and writing, there are other employment options for English majors.

A wide range of sectors can benefit from having employees with strong communication abilities, such as the capacity to listen to, comprehend, and share viewpoints. For example, it’s not unusual for English majors to go on to become CEOs.

4. Statistics on High-Earning Majors Don’t Take Career Variances Into Account

While many parents and students are aware that certain majors tend to earn more than others, few are aware of the wide variation within those areas.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, the average lifetime income of a business school graduate is $2.86 million. A $2.76 million salary is not terrible for an average English major.

This is consistent with the findings of The Hamilton Project, a thorough analysis of wages by major, which indicated that the disparity in earning potential within disciplines is not as great as commonly believed. A wider disparity exists between degree holders’ salaries. Because many different professional paths are open to those who get the same degree. 

According to the Hamilton Project, 1.2 percent of philosophy students get jobs in business, typically as management analysts, where they may expect to earn $72,000 annually.

While doing so, 8% of philosophy majors go on to become teachers and make $51,000 a year. Due to the wide variety of possible professions, it is difficult to draw direct correlations between educational paths and salary levels.

The Hamilton Project is an interactive application that allows users to explore common employment for various majors, as well as prospective earnings at different career stages, to offer a sense of the many career pathways and potential earnings graduates have achieved with their majors. To see what this tool is capable of, try playing around with it.

Bottom Line

Your major of choice probably does make a difference in the long run. The arguments you give for why this is irrelevant are probably correct. Recent studies have shown that many college leavers have second thoughts about their decision to attend. Most employers place a higher value on experience and talents than they do on a candidate’s major, so you don’t have anything to worry about there.

Most graduates probably don’t know how to transition from college to the real world of employment, which is why many degrees get bad raps for leading to low-paying jobs. And it is an area where higher education may greatly benefit from reform.

Degrees in the humanities, such as art history and gender studies, are among the worst offenders. A wide range of high-demand “soft skills,” including ingenuity, analysis, critical thinking, writing, persuasiveness, teamwork, and problem-solving, can be honed via their practice.

With these abilities, graduates have several profitable employment options to choose from. Humanities degrees are the most regretted majors according to PayScale’s poll, but many colleges fail to effectively communicate their employment prospects to humanities students.

Until institutions become more adept at helping students make the jump from college to working life, it may be preferable to keep your options open. Consider pursuing a liberal arts degree or two majors to broaden your knowledge base. That way you can broaden your horizons academically and not only in your major, which can help you land a better job.

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