The 10 Most (and 5 Least) Profitable College Degrees

With February nearly over and spring rapidly approaching, there’s many things that you need to do to get ready for the rest of the year. It’s spring cleaning time, the perfect time to organize your personal life and plan what to do in the future. For those younger people who haven’t gotten into college, or at least haven’t finished, one of the biggest decisions you’re going to have to make is what major to take.

I realize that you’re thinking: it’s a bit early to be discussing things like majors, when it’s months until fall semester starts (and you’re probably still waiting to hear back from some of the colleges you’ve applied to, anyway), but it’s good to get some idea of what you want to do now, so you can include that factor in your choice of college.  No sense in going to a college that specializes in liberal arts if you’re going to spend all your time studying engineering (preview of this article: you might want to become an engineer if you want to have a very profitable life).

10 Most Profitable Undergraduate Fields

There are a lot of factors that go into deciding your major as an undergraduate, from your personal interests to your family history. If you’d also like to be in a position to earn a few dollars more than average upon graduation, it’s worth considering the most profitable fields out there as you seek to make your decision.

It’s a bit hard to narrow down the exact amount you can make with any given degree, as there are so many different positions you can get once you graduate. But here is a list of the ten profitable undergraduate degrees (according to Forbes) along with the median salary for new graduates. I’ve also include the current unemployment rates you can expect to face (according to the Wall Street Journal), because what use is a highly profitable degree if you can’t get a job? (Obviously, you might be facing vastly different unemployment rates if you’re not graduating until four or five years from now, but having an idea of what to expect could help you make a choice.) And now, organized according to median starting salary, the best (undergraduate) college degrees to get:

1. Computer Science
Median Starting Salary: $56,600
2012 Unemployment Rate: 3.6%
This should hardly be surprising; computers are everywhere, and if you are able to program them and keep them running, you can make a great living.

You'll also be able to leave piles of money just lying around.
You’ll also be able to leave piles of money just lying around.

2. Software Engineering
Median Starting Salary: $54,900
2012 Unemployment Rate: 2.8%
Alright, I suppose this could be included under computer science (or engineering, as shown below), but I thought it was distinct enough to deserve its own listing.  There’s a LOT of desire for software engineering out there.

3. Engineering
Median Starting Salary: $53,800
2012 Unemployment Rate: 0.4% (Yes, really)
You might be asking, ‘Just what specific field of engineering?’ The short answer is this: most, if not all, fields of engineering earn hefty incomes, meaning this list would likely be a collection of the most profitable engineering careers (with few other fields included) if I split them up into individual engineering fields.  (Like this Times magazine list, which is 80% engineering fields).  The values cited above are for biomedical engineering, just in case you are looking for THE most profitable (although, even that fact is disputed by other sources, which put other engineering fields on top; just be aware that engineering is a pretty profitable area to seek employment, regardless of the specific area).

4. Mathematics
Median Starting Salary: $52,600
2012 Unemployment Rate: 5.4%
Yup, mathematics.  I’ll let you know now, if you aren’t a fan of math, you’re not going to like most of the professions listed in this article.  (At least, until we get to the least profitable degrees, but then you might dislike that they are in that section…)

5. Computer and Information Systems
Median Starting Salary: $51,000
2012 Unemployment Rate: 4.5%
Yet another computer-related major; it’s almost as if businesses want skilled and well-educated people help keep their computers running…

6. Construction Management
Median Starting Salary: $50,200
2012 Unemployment Rate: 4.7%
I don’t have too much to say here, other than it turns out that construction management has quite a lot of math involved (lest you were thinking this was an area with high earnings that didn’t involve mathematics; sorry, but that’s not really a possibility).

7. Statistics
Median Starting Salary: $49,000
2012 Unemployment Rate: 3.1%
Yet more math; if you like tracking the performance of sports teams, you might want to consider something like this, as it’s a profitable way to manage stats (although not always sports stats).

8. Finance
Median Starting Salary: $46,500
2012 Unemployment Rate: 2.0%
Not terribly surprising, as if you work with money, there’ s a fair to good chance you’ll earn a decent amount of it.

9. Geology
Median Starting Salary: $45,300
2012 Unemployment Rate: 4.7%
The physical sciences are pretty profitable, although as you might note, not as profitable as technology, mathematics, and engineering.

10. Biochemistry
Median Starting Salary: $41,700
2012 Unemployment Rate: 3.0%
This happens to be the field where I got my undergraduate degree, and did manage to get a few profitable jobs before going back for a Master’s degree.  Nice to know it’s still a field with lots of opportunities.

If you look over this list, you’ll probably notice that they are all in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.  If you’re good at math and willing to put your skills to work, you can make a pretty good living.  Besides, we the American people need more STEM professionals.

5 Least Profitable College Degrees

Last, but not least, here are some of the worst paying college degrees. You might notice that all of the fields listed here involve little to no math, and most tend to allow a lot of creative expression.  The cost of these opportunities (and lack of math), though, is much lower pay and fewer job opportunities.  This is not to scare you away from these fields, but if you’re hoping to make a decent living right out of college (and want the best chance to have your parents help you pay for your college expenses, assuming they insist you get a profitable degree), here are five fields to avoid, again as noted by Forbes:

5. Liberal Arts
Median Starting Salary: $30,000
Unemployment Rate for Recent Grads: 9.2%

4. Philosophy and Religious Studies
Median Starting Salary: $30,000
Unemployment Rate for Recent Grads: 10.8%

3. Fine Arts
Median Starting Salary: $30,000
Unemployment Rate for Recent Grads: 12.6%

2. Film, Video, and Photographic Arts
Median Starting Salary: $30,000
Unemployment Rate for Recent Grads: 12.9%

And now, the least profitable undergraduate degree you can get:

1. Anthropology and Archaelogy
Median Starting Salary: $28,000
Unemployment Rate for Recent Grads: 10.5%

Apparently, Indiana Jones needed to go on all those adventures just to supplement his income.  (Yes, yes, he had a doctorate and was a professor, back in the 1930’s, no less.  Still, I think it’s funny.)

Alright, there you have it, ten highly profitable degrees (and five that will likely barely earn you a living wage).  Here’s hoping you end up having a profitable career, regardless of your degree!

4 Responses to The 10 Most (and 5 Least) Profitable College Degrees

  1. I am surprised accounting degrees were not listed. There is always a need for accountants. Once a CPA, you can work at almost any company or remain in the accounting world. My opinion is that this is one of the best degrees to ever get regardless of era; it is always a good choice.

    • A fair point, Steven. I suppose I should have specified that these are undergraduate degrees; that’s why I didn’t include attorneys, lawyers, medical doctors, or any other doctorates on the list. I agree with you, a CPA is definitely a great degree to get, and as you mention, it’s pretty universal when it comes to usefulness.

  2. It is very interesting to see the unemployment rates associated with the starting salaries. I notice all of the low paying degrees have high unemployment rates, and the high paying degrees have below average unemployment rates. I assume the market is saying we don’t have enough engineers and we have too many anthropologists. The high unemployment rates are pushing down salaries in some fields, while the low unemployment rates are pushing others up. Supply and demand at work.
    S. B.´s last blog post ..Year-End Note

    • It does make a pretty reasonable example of supply and demand at work; less supply than demand equals higher salaries, more supply than demand means lower salaries. It probably also shows just why there is so much effort to get more students into STEM fields, in an attempt to boost the supply and decrease the cost. I don’t see it happening too quickly in the near future, though.

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