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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| September 7, 2017
College is often considered the surest path to a lucrative career. After all, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a worker with a bachelor's degree typically earns two-thirds more than someone with just a high school diploma.
But not all college degrees are created equal. “Increasingly, students want to understand the career and income opportunities associated with their college education,” says Lydia Frank, PayScale vice president, in a statement.
To determine which majors typically come with the best hiring prospects and pay, we analyzed data for 126 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. Plus, we factored in the percentage of workers with given degrees who feel their jobs are having a positive impact on the world because having a sense of purpose can be just as important as having a good payday.
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. (Spoiler alert: STEM majors—that is, fields in science, technology, engineering and math—dominate our rankings.)
For each of the 126 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 third quarter of 2016 and the second quarter of 2017 that were seeking applicants with each of the 126 college majors. Projected 10-year growth rates from 2016 to 2026 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. In finalizing our rankings, we combined some similar majors to avoid redundancy.
Starting salary: $53,300 (median for all majors: $43,250)
Mid-career salary: $93,200 (median for all majors: $74,700)
Annual online job postings: 1.4 million
Related job: Financial Analyst
Projected 10-year job growth: 13.1% (all occupations: 8.6%)
At Kiplinger, we totally get that money matters can be complex, and many of us—especially the growing number of people rapidly approaching retirement age—need help understanding and managing them. No wonder workers with financial knowledge are in such high demand. New regulations, more products and increasingly complex investment portfolios don’t hurt either. And that need translates into plenty of opportunities and generous pay for workers in this field. Financial analysts, who evaluate investment opportunities for businesses, earn a median salary of more than $80,100 a year. Personal financial advisers, who are expected to add 23.8% more positions by 2026, typically earn about $86,800 a year.
Finance isn’t strictly considered a STEM field, but you can still expect to work with numbers a great deal. High school students interested in finance 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: $56,400
Mid-career salary: $131,700
Annual online job postings: 25,613
Related job: Actuary
Projected 10-year job growth: 17.5%
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 and ever-changing health care laws and financial regulations help drive companies' needs for their services, and their usefulness is well compensated: Actuaries enjoy a median salary of more than $97,000 a year. For even better pay, an actuarial degree can also lead you to becoming a financial manager, who typically earns nearly $116,500 a year. In general, actuarial mathematics leads to the second-highest mid-career salary of all our 126 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: $58,000
Mid-career salary: $108,000
Annual online job postings: 115,056
Best related job: Physicist
Projected 10-year job growth: 11.0%
It won't take much force to accelerate a physics major toward a lucrative career (regardless of mass). While the clearest career path to take with this degree leads to work as a physicist, you typically need to get an advanced degree along the way. (It might be worth the extended and more expensive journey, if you’re so inclined: Physicists do have a promising projected job growth rate and a generous median annual salary of nearly $111,600.) Other jobs to consider with a bachelor's in physics include aerospace engineer, computer engineer or civil engineer—all of which offer above-average growth projections and pay.
Various physics classes including computational, modern and nuclear physics obviously will fill your schedule. You should also be prepared to do a lot of math, work on experiments both independently and with classmates, and apply your problem-solving skills.
Starting salary: $46,300
Mid-career salary: $76,800
Annual online job postings: 3.7 million
Best related job: Operations Manager
Projected 10-year job growth: 11.2%
If you want to spend your college years studying how to be boss, this would be a great major for you. It certainly worked out well for billionaire Warren Buffett, who holds a bachelor’s degree in this field from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. While a business administration major might not strictly fall into the STEM classification, you should probably get comfortable with numbers if you want to study it. Possible courses include accounting, statistics and economics, along with slightly less numerically focused classes such as business ethics and law, marketing and business policy and strategy.
And though you’re preparing for a career aimed at the top of the job ladder, with this major, you maintain a wide reach for where your career can go, in terms of industry. Workers with this degree wind up in a diverse array of jobs, including accountants, sales supervisors, financial managers and many other management positions. With such workplace agility, no wonder 76.3% of former business administration majors are employed full time, according to the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, which promotes U.S. economic growth and competitiveness.
Starting salary: $57,900
Mid-career salary: $101,300
Annual online job postings: 2.6 million
Related job: Computer and Information Systems Manager
Projected 10-year job growth: 17.9%
Combining tech savvy with leadership abilities can be a winning career formula. 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. Among the most common and highest paid positions is as an information systems manager. On top of the above-average growth in demand, this job earns a median $130,400 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 more than $85,000 a year and enjoy a projected long-term growth rate of 22.0%.
Starting salary: $65,900
Mid-career salary: $110,100
Annual online job postings: 2.0 million
Related job: Software Developer
Projected 10-year job growth: 21.6%
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—and compensated in kind. 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.
Along with computer science majors, students focusing on computer engineering and software engineering have promising career prospects, too. Software engineering majors go on to earn an annual median salary of $104,300 after ten years on the job. Those entering the field now can find 760,530 online job postings seeking their degrees. Computer engineering majors do even better with median mid-career pay of $116,000 and over 1.5 million online job postings.
All these 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: $64,000
Mid-career salary: $106,800
Annual online job postings: 241,345
Related job: Mechanical Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 9.4%
In the broadest of engineering fields, these majors study machines, including what they’re made of and how they work, with courses such as circuit analysis, fluid mechanics, materials science and thermodynamics. Sound like a lot to cover? You’re not wrong. Indeed, mechanical engineering students often take five years (or four years including a couple of summers) to complete their degrees because they take on internships for hands-on work experience that complements their theoretical studies. The good news is these cooperative programs do include paid gigs, so you can offset some of those educational costs.
And it likely all pays off in the end. These degree holders tend to have little problem finding work with 85.1% being employed full-time, according to the Hamilton Project. Most majors go on to become mechanical engineers (obviously), who have a median salary of more than $83,400 a year. But some also find other well-paying jobs as other types of engineers, including civil and aerospace, and even as software developers and similar positions.
Starting salary: $57,700
Mid-career salary: $98,500
Annual online job postings: 201,886
Related job: Civil Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 10.5%
A number of engineering fields are well known for paying well. Petroleum engineering, for example, turns out the top earners of all 126 majors we analyzed with an impressive median pay of $175,500 a year for mid-career workers. However, the size of the job market, with just about 33,200 petroleum engineers in the country, means scant opportunities for those looking to join the field. (Its inextricable tie to the volatility of oil prices also makes it difficult to recommend, especially right now.)
For civil engineering students, the potential median pay might not be quite as high (although Mexican business mogul Carlos Slim studied civil engineering, and he’s one of the richest men in the world), but the employment prospects are much better. Civil engineers, who design and supervise the construction of airports, sewer systems and other large projects, are expected to add more than 30,600 positions to their already robust ranks of nearly 292,000 by 2026.
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.
Starting salary: $62,900
Mid-career salary: $103,500
Annual online job postings: 51,070
Related job: Biomedical Engineer
Projected 10-year job growth: 23.2%
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: $58,200
Mid-career salary: $76,300
Annual online job postings: 1.9 million
Related job: Registered Nurse
Projected 10-year job growth: 17.2%
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, as well as an increasing number of insured people, which was brought on by the Affordable Care Act. Regardless of what may happen with health care coverage in our country, prospects for registered nurses (RNs) are promising—and even more so for nurse practitioners (NPs), whose ranks are expected to grow a whopping 32.3% by 2026. Both professions are among our best jobs for the future. NPs typically make nearly $98,288 a year; RNs earn a median $67,418 a year. And the field is as rewarding as it is lucrative: 82% 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.
1. Civil Engineering
2. Biomedical Engineering
4. Computer Science
5. Information Security
6. Management Information Systems
7. Finance & Economics
8. Software Engineering
9. Aerospace Engineering
10. Actuarial Mathematics
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Above is our 2016-17 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.
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