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Slide Show | September 2013

Worst College Majors for Your Career

A four-year college degree can pay off handsomely. The average worker with a bachelor's pockets $2.4 million in lifetime earnings — $1 million more than someone with only a high school diploma. Those lifetime earnings can add up to significantly less, however, depending on what you study in college. An education major, for instance, collects just $1.8 million over the span of a 40-year career; an arts major, $2.0 million.

We analyzed salaries and jobless rates for workers with bachelor's degrees in 95 popular majors to determine which fields of study are worst for college grads' earnings and employment prospects. We looked at data for recent grads as well as workers who are well into their careers.

If your passion lies with one of the following subjects, we're not saying you ought to stop pursuing it. Money isn't everything. But you should be realistic about job opportunities and income potential for these majors, especially if you expect to graduate with a mountain of student debt.

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce provided the list of 95 majors, as well as the unemployment rates associated with each major for recent college graduates with bachelor's degrees (ages 22 to 26) and mid-career workers (ages 30 to 54). Median annual salaries for recent grads (five years or less of work experience) and mid-career employees (at least ten years of work experience) for each major were supplied by compensation research firm PayScale. Median incomes and projected growth rates from 2010 to 2020 for specific occupations and their related industries are courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Projected job growth reflects the growth rate of an occupation that's representative of each college major.

Worst College Majors for Your Career

10. Family Consumer Sciences

Starting salary: $34,700 (median for all grads with bachelor's: $44,700)

Mid-career salary: $47,800 (median for all grads with bachelor's: $77,000)

Mid-career unemployment rate: 5.6% (all grads with bachelor's: 4.7%)

Projected job growth: 19.7% (all occupations: 14.3%)

Alternative major: Finance

Better known as home economics, this major involves the study of subjects as varied as nutrition, childhood development, fashion and household budgeting. The unemployment rate for recent graduates isn't bad: 6.4%, versus 7.9% for all recent grads. But those entry-level jobs come with annual salaries that are $10,000 below the national median. And by mid career, the pay rises little.

Family social workers, common roles for these degree-holders, may be expected to experience above-average employment growth in the coming years. But with coursework in consumer economics and family financial management, you might parlay this education into a more-promising career: personal financial adviser. The median pay is $67,520 a year, and demand is expected to grow 32.1% by 2020. If you don't mind more math classes, a better route to becoming a financial adviser is to major in finance, which will also prepare you for other good-paying jobs.

10. Family Consumer Sciences

9. Humanities

Starting salary: $35,600

Mid-career salary: $60,100

Mid-career unemployment rate: 9.8%

Projected job growth: 5.8%

Alternative major: Area Ethnic and Civilization Studies

This generic degree, which requires a plethora of coursework in art, music, literature and languages, often leads to a lackluster career. The mid-career unemployment rate of humanities majors is more than double the average rate for all grads with bachelor's degrees and the highest of all the majors analyzed for our rankings. The pay, if you find a job, is well below average for both recent graduates and experienced workers.

Remaining in the same realm but choosing a marginally more specific field, majoring in area ethnic and civilization studies offers a slightly steadier career path. The mid-career unemployment rate is better, albeit still higher than average at 7.2%. And the paychecks are bigger, typically rising to $76,500 a year by mid-career.

9. Humanities

8. Mass Media

Starting salary: $34,400

Mid-career salary: $59,800

Mid-career unemployment rate: 7.9%

Projected job growth: -5.5%

Alternative major: Marketing

Declining demand for news analysts, reporters and correspondents helps explain the 8.9% unemployment rate for recent graduates with this degree and the persistently high rate for more-experienced workers.

News junkies would do better with a journalism degree. Experienced journalism majors have an unemployment rate of 5.4%, and median annual pay is $36,800 to start and $64,700 by mid career. Or consider applying your knack for communications to marketing, which often leads to better-paying gigs, with median salaries starting at $39,100 a year and growing to $73,900 annually after several years.

8. Mass Media

7. Studio Arts

Starting salary: $35,700

Mid-career salary: $53,200

Mid-career unemployment rate: 7.3%

Projected job growth: 7.7%

Alternative major: Advertising

Andy Warhol said, "Making money is art, and working is art, and good business is the best art." Too bad the reverse is so frequently untrue. Studio artists, who work with ceramics, glass, wood, metal and other materials, suffer high unemployment and earn little money throughout their careers.

Would-be-artists might take a page from Warhol's sketchbook and apply their talents to the more-lucrative world of advertising. Entry-level advertising majors experience a below-average unemployment rate of 7.3% and earn a median $37,800 a year; those figures improve to 5.8% and $77,100 a year by mid career.

7. Studio Arts

6. Interdisciplinary Studies

Starting salary: $37,500

Mid-career salary: $51,000

Mid-career unemployment rate: 8.5%

Projected job growth: N/A

Alternative major: Almost any other single-study major

Interdisciplinary studies allows for the exploration of multiple and distinct fields at once and includes majors that you can design yourself. Some pairings of promising fields of study, such as engineering and computer science, are more likely to produce favorable results than others. But the split focus of interdisciplinary studies can prove less gainful than single-study majors, with experienced graduates bearing the second-worst unemployment rate on this list.

With the exception of the five lower-scoring majors in our rankings, you're statistically better off concentrating on a single, focused course of study. And if you seriously fear regretting the road not taken, perhaps you should consider a double major or minoring in one of your fields of interest.

6. Interdisciplinary Studies

5. Art History

Starting salary: $36,400

Mid-career salary: $54,000

Mid-career unemployment rate: 8.3%

Projected job growth: 15.0%

Alternative major: Art Education

A professional devotion to art, while noble, can lead to a life of high unemployment and mediocre pay. But if you follow this career path, at least focus on high-growth jobs. Demand for archivists, curators and museum technicians — jobs commonly sought by art history majors — is projected to rise at above-average rates this decade. Curators exhibit the most promise, with an expected job growth rate of 24.8%.

Still, majoring in art education may prove more financially rewarding than art history. Experienced workers who major in art and music education face an enviably low unemployment rate of just 3.9%. And while curators pull in an annual median pay of $49,590, postsecondary art, drama and music professors make a median $62,160 a year.

5. Art History

4. Early Childhood Education

Starting salary: $29,200

Mid-career salary: $37,600

Mid-career unemployment rate: 5.5%

Projected job growth: 23.0%

Alternative major: Elementary Education

We rely on these folks to guide our future generations in their most formative years, but we don't tend to pay them very well for doing so. As both new grads and experienced workers, early childhood education majors earn the lowest pay of all the majors analyzed by PayScale for these rankings.

Although demand for preschool and kindergarten teachers is expected to rise rapidly, you may be better off with any other specialized education training. Elementary and middle school teachers are expected to add 358,400 new positions by 2020, growing at a rate of 16.8%. And majors focusing on elementary education boast a low 5.0% unemployment rate early in their careers and just 3.7% later. They also earn less-anemic median annual salaries of $31,400 to start and $46,000 after a few years.

4. Early Childhood Education

3. Social Work

Starting salary: $33,100

Mid-career salary: $45,300

Mid-career unemployment rate: 6.5%

Projected job growth: 24.8%

Alternative major: Public Administration

There are many good reasons to pursue a degree in social work. Pay isn't one of them. Mid-career workers who majored in social work typically make $31,700 less annually than the average college graduate with a bachelor's degree.

But if you're committed to helping those in need, demand for health care social workers is expected to increase 33.5% through 2020, more than double the national average. The median pay for this type of social worker is an improvement, at $49,830 a year for experienced workers. Or you can serve your fellow man at the institutional level. Public administration majors sport a lower, 6.2% mid-career unemployment rate and boast a higher pay grade, starting at $41,500 a year and moving up to $59,700 by mid career.

3. Social Work

2. Fine Arts

Starting salary: $31,800

Mid-career salary: $53,700

Mid-career unemployment rate: 7.3%

Projected job growth: 7.8%

Alternative major: Film, Video and Photographic Arts

Your dad wasn't kidding when he warned you about the life of a starving artist. Fine arts graduates earn the second-lowest pay of all the recent grads on this list. And the future doesn't look so great, either. Demand for painters, sculptors, illustrators and the like is slow-rising at 7.8%, well below the overall employment growth rate of 14.3% for all occupations.

Transferring your artistry from canvas to cameras may improve your career prospects, especially after you get a few years of experience under your belt. Film, video and photographic arts majors start at $37,500, and median pay zooms up to $76,700 for seasoned workers. The mid-career unemployment rate is an easier-to-swallow 6.5%, though recent grads struggle more, with 11.4% unemployment.

2. Fine Arts

1. Human Services and Community Organization

Starting salary: $32,900

Mid-career salary: $41,100

Mid-career unemployment rate: 8.1%

Projected job growth: 21.8%

Alternative major: Business Administration

Sure, working in this field panned out well for President Obama, but majoring in it might not prove as vocationally rewarding for you. The salary for entry-level workers with this bachelor's degree is low, and the median annual pay for workers with ten or more years of experience only increases by a paltry $8,200. Couple the poor compensation with an uninspiring mid-career jobless rate of 8.1% and it's no wonder human services and community organization landed at the top of our list of worst majors for your career.

As an alternative, we recommend you look into business administration. Earning this degree will still hone your organizational skills, but it comes with a lower mid-career unemployment rate of 5.6% and higher median annual pay -- $41,400 to start and $82,800 by mid career. If you're committed to community organization, aim for the managerial ranks, which offer a projected ten-year job growth rate of 26.7% and annual median pay of $59,970.

1. Human Services and Community Organization

2012 Rankings

1. Anthropology
2. Fine Arts
3. Film and Photography
4. Philosophy and Religious Studies
5. Graphic Design
6. Studio Arts
7. Liberal Arts
8. Drama and Theater Arts
9. Sociology
10. English

Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Here is last year's list of the worst college majors for your career. Keep in mind that ranking methodologies can change from year to year based on the data available at the time, changes to how the data was gathered, switches to new data providers and tweaks to the formulas used to narrow the pool of candidates.

2012 Rankings

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