What’s the Return on Your Investment? The Highest Paying and Lowest Paying Bachelor’s Degrees

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Posted By Terri Williams on June 8, 2015 at 11:58 am
What’s the Return on Your Investment? The Highest Paying and Lowest Paying Bachelor’s Degrees

The average college graduate earns $33,000 at an entry-level position, according to a 2015 study on the economic value of college majors conducted by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. However, depending on the major, graduates may earn much more – or much less than average.

Over a lifetime, the average college graduate with a bachelor’s degree earns over $1 million more than an individual with only a high school diploma. However, over the span of a career, the difference in wages between a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering and a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in education is $3.4 million.

The Georgetown study provides broad and detailed rankings of majors by super groups, major groups, and sub groups, which we’ll delve into below.

The first table lists the 7 major super groups and ranks them according to wages for recent college graduates:

Ranking Major Super Group Median Annual Wages of College-Educated Workers Ages 21-24
1 STEM $43,000
2 Health $41,000
3 Business $37,000
4 Social sciences $33,000
5 Teaching and serving $30,000
6 Career-focused $30,000
7 Arts, liberal arts, and humanities $29,000

 

Wages for college graduates increase over their lifetime, but so do the differences in wages among majors for workers ages 25-59. Median annual wages for STEM workers increase significantly from early to mid-career, to the tune of $33,000. Also notice the change in ranking for super groups 5 through 7. Graduates in the teaching and serving professions drop from 5th to 7th place, only experiencing a $16,000 wage increase from early to mid-career.

Ranking Major Super Group Median Annual Wages of College-Educated Workers Ages 25-59
1 STEM $76,000
2 Health $65,000
3 Business $65,000
4 Social sciences $60,000
5 Career-focused $54,000
6 Arts, liberal arts, and humanities $51,000
7 Teaching and serving $46,000

 

Breaking down the 7 major super groups into 15 major groups provides a more detailed understanding of the value of college majors. Business and health majors are the only two non-STEM groups above the $33,000 average wage for recent college graduates.

Ranking Major Group Median Annual Wages of College-Educated Workers Ages 21-24
1 Architecture and engineering $50,000
2 Computers, statistics, and mathematics $43,000
3 Health $41,000
4 Business $37,000
5 Social sciences $33,000
6 Physical sciences $32,000
7 Education $32,000
8 Law and public policy $31,000
9 Communications and journalism $31,000
10 Humanities and liberal arts $30,000
11 Agriculture and natural resources $30,000
12 Biology and life sciences $29,000
13 Psychology and social work $28,000
14 Arts $28,000
15 Industrial arts, consumer services, and recreation $27,000

 

Lifetime wages for architecture and engineering majors increase by $33,000. Many major groups change in ranking; most notably, education drops from 7th to 15th place, only increasing in wages by $12,000 over a career lifetime.

Ranking Major Group Median Annual Wages of College-Educated Workers Ages 25-59
1 Architecture and engineering $83,000
2 Computers, statistics, and mathematics $76,000
3 Business $65,000
4 Health $65,000
5 Physical sciences $65,000
6 Social sciences $60,000
7 Agriculture and natural resources $56,000
8 Biology and life sciences $56,000
9 Communications and journalism $54,000
10 Law and public policy $54,000
11 Humanities and liberal arts $52,000
12 Industrial arts, consumer services, and recreation $52,000
13 Arts $49,000
14 Psychology and social work $47,000
15 Education $45,000

 

Ranking the majors by subgroups reveals that engineering holds 11 out of the top 15 spots for wages:

Ranking Highest-Paying Degrees by Major Subgroup Median Annual Wages of College-Educated Workers Ages 25-59
1 Petroleum engineering $136,000
2 Pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and administration $113,000
3 Metallurgical engineering $98,000
4 Mining and mineral engineering $97,000
5 Chemical engineering $96,000
6 Electrical engineering $93,000
7 Aerospace engineering $90,000
8 Mechanical engineering $87,000
9 Computer engineering $87,000
10 Geological and geophysical engineering $87,000
11 Computer science $83,000
12 Civil engineering $83,000
13 Applied mathematics $83,000
14 Industrial and manufacturing engineering $81,000
15 Physics $81,000

 

On the flip side, the lowest-earning majors are primarily in arts, education, consumer services, psychology, and social work.

Ranking Lowest-Paying Degrees by Major Subgroup Median Annual Wages of College-Educated Workers Ages 25-59
1 Early childhood education $39,000
2 Human services and community organization $41,000
3 Studio arts $42,000
4 Social work $42,000
5 Teacher education: multiple levels $42,000
6 Visual and performing arts $42,000
7 Theology and religious vocations $43,000
8 Elementary education $43,000
9 Drama and theatre arts $45,000
10 Family and consumer sciences $45,000
11 Language and drama education $45,000
12 Special needs education $45,000
13 General education $46,000
14 Multi/interdisciplinary studies $46,000
15 Art and music education $46,000

 

These are only average wages for graduates with a bachelor’s degree. However, salaries may vary depending on whether graduates work in the private, for-profit, or non-profit sectors. They may also vary depending on the industry in which they work. For example, the Center notes that an engineering major working as a schoolteacher will earn significantly less than other engineers, and an education major that works in business will earn more than other educators.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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