Article | 3:25 min read

Certain Undergrad Degrees Offer Much Better Pay than Others

Life Events

The decisions you make in college could have major ramifications for your future financial health, and we're not even talking about student loans. A recent report from Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce evaluated the wages of various college graduates by their selected majors [1]. The results might be surprising.

While a student who finishes school with a degree in early-childhood education can expect to earn a median salary of $39,000 per year, a student who receives an undergrad degree in petroleum engineering garners a median salary of $136,000 per year.

That means a person with an engineering degree will make roughly $4.8 million throughout his or her career. On the other hand, a person with a degree in early-childhood education should net about $1.4 million, according to the report.

But this doesn't mean every prospective student should enter engineering just for the big bucks. Melissa Kearney, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, told The Wall Street Journal students should recognize which majors offer strong salaries, but they shouldn't allow dollar amounts to steer their decisions entirely [2].

"People have to think very carefully about what they're good at," Kearney said. "Yes, engineering pays very well. But that's not going to serve someone who really struggles with quantitative skills."

The Georgetown report said 4 of 5 students choose a major based at least somewhat on what they will earn upon graduating.

Choosing the right major
There are four major factors students should consider when looking at a potential major: their goals, strengths, interests and the job market, according to USA Today [3].

While it's great to follow your heart, it might not be the smartest financial move to choose a degree that has very restrictive job placement. Look at how many students in a particular field are being placed across the nation. If you like the percentages and average starting salary, that could be the career for you. If job placement is minimal and the salary is less than you are looking for, it might be better to check out other options.

Anne Davis, an undergrad studying sociology and environmental policy at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, told the Journal she's just fine with her degree choice despite its low to middle-of-the road earnings.

"I've found my calling," Davis said. "I know the money's not lucrative, but I couldn't see myself doing anything else."

Dollars and degrees
Prospective students choose to make investments in education for various reasons, and money to be made isn't always one of them.

Elementary education and psychology are two of the most popular fields of study despite both ranking relatively low in their respective pay in the Georgetown study, according to Fortune [4]. Similarly, certain engineering fields such as geophysical engineering and geological engineering are two of the least popular majors. Geophysical and geological engineering rank third and 10th, respectively, in lifetime earnings.

When deciding on a major it's important to remember money doesn't buy happiness. A person who makes $30,000 to $40,000 per year is just as likely to be "very happy" as a person who makes $50,000 to $75,000, according to a report from the University of Michigan. A person in the first monetary demographic is also just as likely to be "unhappy" as a person in the higher bracket.

The careers that offer the highest and lowest for undergrad degrees 
Most of the top-paying careers can be found in engineering, according to the report from Georgetown. Only pharmacy and pharmaceutical ranked among the 10 highest paying undergraduate degrees that didn't come from engineering fields.

The list includes petroleum engineering, the top earning engineering field, and geological or geophysical engineering, which comes in at No. 10 with a median annual salary of $87,000.

The 10 lowest paying majors revolved around education, social work and fine arts, the Georgetown study revealed. For example, both family and community service and drama and theater arts fell in the bottom 10 at $45,000 per year.

[1]. The Economic Value of College Majors 

[2]. College Majors Figure Big in Earnings 

[3]. Great Career Success Debate: Did you pick the right major? 

[4] Choosing a college major? Read this first


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