Best College Degrees for Highest Paying Jobs

best college degrees

For some fired-up freshmen, choosing the best college degree is as easy as picking a pretty, new notebook. But for others, the daunting task of choosing what they want a degree in is a frightening financial purchase: There’s no money-back guarantee that comes with a diploma; no promise that the degree you’re working toward will pay off. So how much is that pricey piece of paper you’re working toward actually worth?

Turns out, it’s largely dependent on your major. A new report from The Cashlorette analyzed median incomes and unemployment rates for U.S. adults with only a bachelor’s degree across 173 different majors, ranking the most valuable ones in today’s marketplace. The report reveals that if you really want to cash in on your college experience, you better have a knack for math.

After crunching the numbers, here is what The Cashlorette’s report found (drumroll please).

Top 5 College Degrees for Employment & Money:

1. Petroleum Engineering
2. Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences / Administration
3. Geological / Geophysical Engineering
4. Mining / Mineral Engineering
5. Naval Architecture / Marine Engineering

And here were the lowest performing degrees you can get if you’re looking to easily get a high paying job…

Worst 5 College Degrees for Employment & Money:

169. Studio Arts
170. Human Services / Community Organization
171. Composition / Rhetoric
172. Miscellaneous Fine Arts
173. Clinical Psychology

To put all this in perspective, Petroleum Engineering (the best college degree) has a median income of $134,840 and an unemployment rate of 2.38%. Meanwhile, Clinical Psychology (the worst college degree) has a pretty scary unemployment rate of just 8.06% and a median income of $43,092.

And you thought picking out what to wear on the first day of class was hard. No pressure, right?

Why Pick a High Paying College Degree?

In today’s marketplace, a college degree is the one tool that will give you some serious traction in your post-grad job hunt.

Andrew Hanson—a senior research analyst at the Center on Education and the Workforce housed at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy—points out that the college wage premium is now 70 percent, which means those holding a bachelor’s degree will make 70 percent more by mid-career than people who have just a high school diploma. In the 1980s, the college wage premium was 40 percent, according to Hanson. While it’s obviously skyrocketed since then, it’s been relatively flat since 2000.

What does that mean, exactly? It means that everyone needs to ease up a bit on those millennials; it’s tough out there!

“Opportunities for people with just a high school degree have plummeted,” Hanson says. “Not only is a (college degree) valuable, it’s become a necessity, more so than anything else.”

One thing that The Cashlorette’s study makes clear is that not all college degrees are created equal, even if they have identical price tags.

“Your major is going to have a huge impact on what kind of life you’re going to lead,” Hanson says. “It’s an enormously consequential decision, and you have to take it seriously.”

Why Pick a College Degree with High Employment Rate?

Now, if you know me, you know I just can’t ignore the big, ugly elephant in the room.

Take a look at The Cashlorette’s ranking of the most valuable majors, and you’ll notice one pretty obvious trend: STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) bachelor’s degrees are killing it, while other fields are struggling to compete. Nursing is actually the top-ranking, non-STEM bachelor’s degree… all the way down the list at No. 36. And it’s highly debated whether nursing should even be considered a STEM field.

Think about who the shining stars are in the STEM fields: Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Evan Spiegel, Jack Dorsey… do I really need to keep going?

It’s no secret that women graduate at significantly lower rates than men in STEM fields: While women make up nearly 60 percent of college graduates, they earn only about 35 percent of the undergraduate STEM degrees, and it’s been that way for about a decade.

We talk about wage inequality in the workplace, but women are actually setting themselves up for a lifetime of inequity before they even crack open a textbook.

But can you really blame us?

Getting girls in classrooms that even teach STEM subjects can be a challenge in itself. Samantha Radocchia, a Forbes 30 Under 30 entrepreneur and co-founder of the tech company Chronicled, says that to get more women in those STEM classes, there has to be improved access.

“It’s deeply gendered and it starts at a young age,” Radocchia says. “Women or girls who want to get into tech, they get into classes and then they’re the only female.”

Then, merely being a woman working in a STEM field comes with its own set of obstacles. Skim that gross memo from an ex-Google employee that made waves earlier this month if you need further proof.

“There needs to be more us, and more of us speaking about the problems,” Radocchia says. “I think the challenge is having support, having more women in the field and being respected. On the founder side, fundraising is something I dread doing. Investors being inappropriate… I definitely have my share of horror stories.”

Many colleges and universities are actively trying to change that narrative, and Flatiron School in New York City (the place Radocchia learned to code) has even implemented a Women Take Tech initiative, doling out over 1 million in scholarships and offering female-only study sessions.

Zipporah Drake, a 25-year-old mother in Chicago, graduated with a degree in Spanish, but was forced to quit her job because it wasn’t cohesive with her childcare. After encouragement from her father (a programmer), she considered coding, and was awarded a scholarship from Flatiron School.

Coding, for Drake, has a financial incentive and also gives her more freedom than she would have with a typical 9-to-5 job. She encourages women to check out STEM fields, especially those with kids, touting that coding is the perfect job for young mothers.

“Women are the minority (in tech),” Drake says. “I want to come off as a strong woman, and you have to have some serious self-confidence when you go up against the guys. Guys throw some low blows. The glass ceiling and all those hardships… I want to try and break those, and coding is a way to start to do that.”

Don’t Worry If Your Major Isn’t in the Top 5

Feeling empowered to smash that ceiling? Me too. But now back to this “which major will make me the most money” convo.

Before you rush to switch majors during the withdrawal window, it’s important to remember that even if your major didn’t make the top half of The Cashlorette’s ranking, that doesn’t mean you won’t be financially successful. While getting a good job with a solid salary is a piece of that pie, it also includes making smart money moves like saving more than you spend and investing in your retirement.

Instead, the point of this study is to arm you with information that is critical to know before making one of the biggest purchases your life. College is a major financial undertaking. You wouldn’t buy a home or a car without doing your research, and you should approach your education in the same way.

Trust me, I’m a big believer in doing what you love, but the reality is, passion alone doesn’t pay the bills.

The first step to becoming the financially fierce female that you are meant to be is making an informed decision about your education. Once you’re confident that your major is propelling you in the right direction—whether that’s in finance or the fine arts—you can go and kill it in your classes.

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Median income and unemployment rate for each major was determined by analyzing weighted microdata from the U.S. Census American Community Survey for 2011-2015. The methods were based on a 2015 study conducted by researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Median incomes and unemployment rates are for all full-time working U.S. adults younger than age 65 with only a bachelor’s degree. Incomes have been adjusted for inflation.

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