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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| December 2016
College is often considered the surest path to a lucrative career. After all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a worker with a bachelor's degree typically earns 67.7% more than someone with just a high school diploma. But not all college degrees are created equal.
To determine which majors typically come with the best hiring prospects and pay, we analyzed data for 215 popular college majors. We looked for courses of study that tend to lead to fat paychecks—both right out of school and farther along your career path. We also sought out majors that are in high demand based on recent online job postings as well as long-term growth expectations for related occupations.
But money isn’t everything. Many people hope their careers will give them a sense of purpose, too. So we factored in the percentage of workers with given degrees who feel their jobs are having a positive impact on the world.
Our top 10 majors present interested scholars with the best shots at success and satisfaction in the workplace, complete with generous incomes and an abundance of job opportunities. Check out the best college majors for a lucrative career.
For each of the 215 college majors, compensation research firm PayScale provided median annual salaries for entry-level workers (with five years or less of work experience) and mid-career employees (with at least 10 years of experience). PayScale also provided “high job meaning” scores, which indicate the percentage of workers with given college majors who say their work makes the world a better place. Workforce research firm Burning Glass Technologies supplied the number of online job postings listed between the first quarter of 2015 and the second quarter of 2016 that were seeking applicants with each of the 215 college majors. Projected 10-year growth rates from 2015 to 2025 for related occupations came from Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI), a labor-market research firm owned by CareerBuilder. EMSI collects data from more than 90 federal, state and private sources, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Starting salary: $58,800 (median for all 215 majors: $42,600)
Mid-career salary: $119,000 (median for all 215 majors: $70,800)
Annual online job postings: 33,237
Related job: Actuary
Projected 10-year job growth: 21.9% (all occupations: 11.1%)
You'll find little risk in pursuing an actuarial career. These professionals—who work in the insurance and finance industries, analyzing the costs of risk and uncertainty—are in high demand. New health care laws and financial regulations help drive companies' needs for their services. Their usefulness is well compensated; actuaries enjoy a median salary of more than $99,500 a year. For even better pay, an actuarial sciences degree can also lead you to becoming a financial manager, who typically earns more than $116,000 a year. In general, actuarial mathematics leads to the third-highest mid-career salaries of all our 215 majors.
Expect your graphing-calculator usage to be exponentially higher in college. You likely already warmed it up in high school with advanced placement calculus or statistics. In college, you can expect to take micro- and macroeconomics, probability and risk theory courses, too.
Starting salary: $64,800
Mid-career salary: $107,000
Annual online job postings: 5,414
Related job: Aerospace Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 11.1%
Having your head up in the clouds may actually be great for your career. Aerospace engineers—who design aircrafts, spacecrafts, satellites and missiles—are in demand as the industry seeks to develop engines that are quieter and more fuel-efficient. Plus, as the space race revs up again, hiring expands beyond space agencies to private companies that are getting into the game, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Aerospace engineers can expect to make a median annual salary of about $107,260.
Just be ready to hit the books because, well, this is rocket science. These majors should be able to balance a heavy course load, including flight mechanics, thermodynamics and robotics, and master abstract concepts such as lift and drag. Taking a slew of advanced science and math classes in high school should help propel you into this field.
Starting salary: $62,500
Mid-career salary: $96,800
Annual online job postings: 1.2 million
Related job: App Developer
Projected 10-year job growth: 22.7%
It should be no surprise that computer-related fields frequent this list of best college majors. Computers are everywhere, and people who know how to make, modify and master the machines are in high demand. Overall, computer positions are expected to grow 18.1% by 2025. Developers of both applications and systems software (among our Best Jobs for the Future) typically earn about $96,461 and $103,083 a year, respectively.
Software engineering majors take a lot of technology-focused classes, of course, such as computer science and programming. Business and communications classes can help, too, since many employers prefer high-tech workers with business skills and communication capabilities on top of standard tech savvy.
Starting salary: $55,700
Mid-career salary: $101,000
Annual online job postings: 1.7 million
Related job: Financial Analyst
Projected 10-year job growth: 15.5%
Millennials are notorious for distrusting financial professionals, but they might consider occupying Wall Street in a more collaborative capacity. Demand for workers with financial and economic knowledge is driven by new regulations, more products and increasingly complex investment portfolios covering the global market—giving you plenty of opportunities to join 'em (in lieu of beating 'em). Plus, the pay is generous. Financial analysts earn a median salary of more than $80,940 a year. Managers do even better, typically taking home more than $116,000 a year. Personal financial advisers, who are expected to add 19.3% more positions by 2025, typically earn nearly $83,114 a year. Another career option: Economists can expect a median salary of more than $97,300 a year.
High school students interested in finance and economics can prepare for this major by studying statistics and calculus. In college, you'll add to your schedule accounting, financial markets and investing, as well as microeconomics, macroeconomics and economic theory. If you pursue a bachelor of arts degree in this field, you likely have to take liberal arts and foreign language classes, too.
Starting salary: $56,800
Mid-career salary: $96,300
Annual online job postings: 3.7 million
Related job: Computer and Information Systems Manager
Projected 10-year job growth: 16.0%
For another promising major, head back to the computer lab (or, more likely, your dorm room, where you keep your own machine). Information systems focuses on the study of implementing technology within a company or organization. The management portion of your studies homes in on the business side of the field. In addition to your computer courses, you will study sociology and psychology, Internet ethics and project management. In fact, many universities offer this degree through their business schools.
Your MIS degree can lead you to many different computer-related career paths, but it seems best suited to the position of information systems manager. On top of the above-average growth in demand, an information systems manager can expect to earn a median $127,528 a year. But it will take at least a few years of work experience to climb to this management role. And many employers prefer candidates with MBAs. With a bachelor's, you can break into the field as a computer systems analyst, who can expect to earn median pay of nearly $82,700 a year and enjoy a projected long-term growth rate of 22.5%.
Starting salary: $57,100
Mid-career salary: $86,600
Annual online job postings: 1.8 million
Related job: Information Security Analyst
Projected 10-year job growth: 30.9%
The world could use more cyber-heroes. Government agencies and private companies across the board are hiring more and more information security analysts to combat the rise of hacker attacks and protect their (and their customers') data. While these professionals (among our best jobs for the future) have done well with other tech-related bachelor's degrees, such as computer science or programming, employers are frequently seeking out job candidates with this particular expertise.
You can certainly expect to take computer courses, such as intro to C++ programming and applications of information technology. But also expect to study the legal side of the equation with classes such as criminal investigation, ethics and criminal justice.
Starting salary: $63,100
Mid-career salary: $105,000
Annual online job postings: 3.1 million
Related job: Computer and Information Research Scientist
Computer science majors focus on the fundamentals of today's technology in order to devise what tomorrow will bring. So they need to have equal parts imagination and mathematical logic. Programming courses, including computer languages C++ and Java, will be the core of your schedule. Other classes might include artificial intelligence, computer system organization and digital system design.
A computer science degree makes you a viable candidate for a torrent of tech jobs, including software developer, systems analyst and network administrator. Computer scientist may be your most lucrative option, earning a median salary of more than $106,980 a year. The job has you work to create new technology and figure out novel ways to use existing tech. You can choose to focus on hardware, robotics or software and find work with the federal government, computer systems design firms and scientific research companies.
Starting salary: $56,600
Mid-career salary: $73,600
Related job: Registered Nurse
Projected 10-year job growth: 15.5%
The need for nurses is as persistent as the common cold. In terms of demand, most health care professionals, in general, benefit from the aging population and an increasing number of insured people. Prospects for registered nurses (RNs) are particularly promising—and even more so for nurse practitioners (NPs) (among our best jobs for the future), whose ranks are expected to grow 25.7% by 2025. NPs typically make nearly $97,397 a year; RNs earn more than $69,000. And the field is as rewarding as it is lucrative: 83% of employees with this degree report feeling a high sense of meaning in their careers, according to PayScale.
To reach RN ranks, nursing students must take many science courses, including anatomy, chemistry, microbiology and nutrition. You also get supervised clinical experience in various specialties, such as pediatrics, psychiatry and surgery. And you'll have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination to get your license (additional requirements vary by state). NPs must head back to school longer to obtain a master's or doctoral degree.
Starting salary: $60,900
Mid-career salary: $96,400
Annual online job postings: 54,865
Related job: Biomedical Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 25.7%
The increasing overlap between biology and technology is expanding the field of biomedical engineering. For example, three-dimensional printers and smartphone apps being applied to health care helps drive demand for biomedical engineers, who design, create and maintain such equipment and software. And the aging population boosts the need for biomedical devices and procedures, such as hip and knee replacements, as we continue to live and remain active longer.
It helps to have a creative mind and an ability to problem-solve, as well as an interest in medicine, to succeed in this field. Expect a schedule packed with science and technology courses, such as anatomy, organic chemistry, robotics and computer programming.
Starting salary: $55,600
Mid-career salary: $94,500
Annual online job postings: 243,717
Related job: Civil Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 17.2%
A number of engineering fields are well known for paying well. Petroleum engineering, for example, turns out the top earners of all 215 majors we analyzed. However, the size of the job market—with just about 35,000 petroleum engineers in the country—means scant opportunities for those looking to join the field, especially in light of the steep drop in oil prices since 2014. Civil engineering students have better prospects: Civil engineers, who design and supervise large construction projects, including airports, sewer systems and tunnels, are expected to add nearly 50,000 positions to their ranks by 2025. (In 2015, the count for civil engineers was more than 286,000.)
An inclination toward math and science would make you a good civil engineering candidate. Your course load would include fluid mechanics, statics, structural analysis and design, and thermodynamics. Also be prepared to think through many word problems and work on group projects.
1. Computer Science
2. Management Information Systems
3. Software Engineering
8. Civil Engineering
9. Actuarial Mathematics
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Above is our 2015–2016 list of the best college majors for a lucrative 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.
1. Computer Science
2. Management Information Systems
3. Software Engineering
4. Information Technology
6. Civil Engineering
9. Actuarial Mathematics
1. Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science
2. Computer Science
3. Civil Engineering
4. Information Systems Management
6. Information Systems
9. Information Science
10. Construction Services
1. Pharmacy and Pharmacology
3. Transportation Sciences and Technology
4. Treatment Therapy Professions
5. Chemical Engineering
6. Electrical Engineering
7. Medical Technologies
8. Construction Services
9. Management Information Systems
10. Medical Assisting Services
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