College offers a lot of benefits: personal growth, a chance to make lifelong friends, an environment of creativity and learning.
But let’s face facts. It’s also a huge financial commitment and even if commanding a huge salary isn’t your ultimate goal, you want to know that the major you choose will lead to a career track that at least lets you live comfortably.
What do the best-paying majors have in common?
A lot of factors besides your major affect your future earnings —your work ethic, changes in the job market, and even good luck/timing all play a role. (English isn’t known for being particularly lucrative, but if you become a best-selling author with multiple movie deals you can make significantly more than your roommate the nuclear physicist.)
That said, there are common trends among the majors that garner the highest average salaries. STEM majors (especially those that are more specialized) and majors that tend to feed into medical and law school programs, tend to rank highly.
“Best-paying” may seem cut and dried, but there’s some wiggle room there. It’s more than the number on your paycheck. How easy (and affordable) it is to get the degree and training you need, the availability of open jobs and how stable those jobs are, are all factors you need to weigh.
For example, if a given career pays 10% more than another, but is more prone to layoffs or tech-related disruption, periods of unemployment could mean you actually earn less in total income by pursuing that “better paying” field.
That’s why we looked at two of the latest studies of best-paying majors just came out. They use slightly different methodologies, but you’ll definitely see some useful similarities in their findings.
My Degree Guide’s list of the 30 Best Majors of the Future looked at salary, expected job growth, and the availability of programs at top schools to create their list:
Management Information Systems
Another perspective on your options
24/7 Wall St. compiled a similar list but looked at slightly different factors. That site’s methodology examined each field’s annual earnings, workforce size, and unemployment status of those in the field. By those standards, the best-paying majors were:
Health and Medical prep (pre-med majors)
Math and Computer Science
Transportation Sciences and Technology
Mining and Mineral Engineering
What matters most to you?
There’s more to life than money, of course. If your chosen major isn’t on these lists, don’t despair.
Keep in mind, many of these majors are more expensive (longer programs, at larger universities, with lab fees and more expensive textbooks, etc.). So, folks in those programs make more money out of school but may also start off with a lot more debt. You can get a more individualized look at anticipated salaries for your choice of major with our Major Salary Calculator.
Remember, you can’t put a price on happiness. If you hated science classes but are creative and love working with kids, being an elementary school art teacher is a significantly better choice for you than going into engineering.
Still not sure what your major should be? Or how to balance happiness and financial security? Join the club! And check out our research on job satisfaction within the workforce for more information on how much people still like their careers after they’ve been in them for a few years. (You might be surprised by some of the findings.)
Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky