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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| September 2017
Whether the high cost of college is worthwhile really depends on what you study. It’s true a full-time worker with a bachelor's typically earns two-thirds more than someone with only a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those are just averages. According to a 2015 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the difference in lifetime earnings between the highest-paying college majors and lowest-paying majors is a whopping $3.4 million. So you need to know what kind of future you can expect from your degree before you borrow the tuition money to get it.
To that end, we analyzed data for 126 popular college majors, focusing on prospects for pay, hiring demand and job satisfaction for each. In the following 10 fields, we found that workers with these majors report low starting and mid-career salaries. Many report that they don’t find their careers meaningful, either. These majors also are not commonly sought after in recent online job postings and often lead to occupations with lackluster growth expectations.
If you find your favorite subject on this list, don’t fret. We suggest a career path that might work best for each of these fields. After all, seeing the numbers shouldn’t necessarily deter you from studying a subject you’re passionate about, but you’re better off following your dreams with eyes wide open.
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.
Starting salary: $38,300 (median for all majors: $43,250)
Mid-career salary: $62,100 (median for all majors: $74,700)
Annual online job postings: 9,316
A true spiritual calling may come with significant rewards—just don't expect them to arrive in monetary form. Directors of religious education earn a median salary of about $38,792 a year, clergy members make $43,453 a year, and other religious workers earn just $28,965 annually.
More surprising than the small paychecks: Only 53% of religion majors report feeling that their work leaves a positive impact on the world. Even geology majors score higher.
Training to become a religious leader does not require a pricey college degree—and presumably you’re not in it for the money anyway. So if you’re interested in this subject for other reasons, you might consider majoring in philosophy instead. This field still gives you the opportunity to delve into religious studies and also provides you with a degree that is in much higher demand. A hefty 2.1 million online job postings over the past year sought out candidates who had studied philosophy. And that demand results in higher pay potential: Philosophy majors report a median starting salary of $44,800 a year and mid-career salary of $85,100 a year. Plus, the critical thinking and extensive writing skills demanded by this major can be applied in many career fields.
Starting salary: $36,600
Mid-career salary: $54,500
Annual online job postings: 1,521
Exercise is good for your health, but majoring in it may not be so great for your career. The broader field of fitness is actually a smart choice with the aging population and focus on wellness pushing demand for many related jobs, such as physical therapists (among our best jobs for the future), occupational therapists, trainers and nutritionists. But, potential employers do not frequently seek out workers who major in exercise science.
If your love of sports is undeniable, this major may be right for you despite its spot in our rankings. Just be prepared to head into education overtime for the most promising related careers. For example, to become a physical therapist, you'll need to study for another three years after college to get your Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. Athletic trainers also need additional licensing and certification and commonly have master's degrees.
Starting salary: $38,200
Mid-career salary: $63,300
Annual online job postings: 2,731
Musical abilities are not a ticket to fame and fortune. After all, for every winner on The Voice, there are thousands of people auditioning each year who you’ve never heard of. And while 12.2% of music majors do go on to become musicians, singers and related workers, they don’t earn much doing so—their median pay is less than $32,000 a year, according to the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, which promotes U.S. economic growth and competitiveness. Plus, 48.6% invest more in their educations and go beyond just a bachelor’s degree.
Unfortunately, you may want to avoid classical music and opera. While these are the genres that are most likely to require postsecondary training, they’re also most likely to see fewer employment opportunities as orchestras and opera companies face difficulties getting funding.
Other musical forms don’t typically require any formal education. So you can still work on your music without making a huge investment in college. You might also consider working part-time, as 22.8% of music majors are doing, so you have time for your music while pulling in some income elsewhere. And take advantage of advancing technology to share your work independently via social media and other platforms. You never know whose ear you might catch.
Starting salary: $41,100
Mid-career salary: $65,400
Annual online job postings: 2,710
A bachelor's degree in art history is no sure path to future employment. Among these degree holders, 4% are unemployed and 20.2% have dropped out of the workforce. Those who have found work aren’t earning much. Museum technicians and conservators, for example, pull in a lean median salary of just $40,792 a year (less than the median $43,250 a year for all jobs). The latter occupation typically requires even more education, a master's in conservation or a related field.
The employment picture might soon improve for art buffs. Despite the low number of current online job postings for art history majors, the projected growth rate for related jobs is actually above average. For example, museum techs and conservators are expected to grow their ranks by 10.5% over the next decade—versus 8.6% growth for all occupations—which might help bump up their pay. You might also improve your prospects by investing in more education and getting a master’s, often needed in order to become an archivist or curator. The former earns a median salary of more than $50,723 a year and has a projected growth rate of 10.7%; the latter typically earns more than $52,062 a year and the field is expected to expand 13.8% by 2026. Archivists specialized with electronic records may do particularly well as more institutions are switching over to digital bookkeeping.
Starting salary: $35,100
Mid-career salary: $56,400
Annual online job postings: 62,986
While the need for legal services is great, the field remains highly competitive. Law firms and their clients looking to cut costs are driving demand for lower-paid paralegals and legal assistants, who have a projected growth rate of 9.1% for the next decade and a median income of less than $49,200 a year. But plenty of applicants are ready fill those spots—or overfill them. According to Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI), a labor-market research firm owned by CareerBuilder, 64,649 people completed their degrees in the legal field in 2016.
Also, furthering your education and investing more in a law degree may not improve your job prospects. The demand for lawyers is lower than average with their numbers expected to expand just 5.8% by 2026.
If it's your dream to become a paralegal, you don't need a bachelor's degree in this specific field to achieve it. In fact, you can become a paralegal with an associate's degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree in another subject and a certificate in paralegal studies. Similarly, if you hope to go to law school eventually, you can do so with a wide range of majors that won't pigeonhole you and limit your career opportunities. For example, you might study something like finance, one of the best college majors for your career, and still pursue a career in law.
Starting salary: $40,200
Mid-career salary: $61,700
Annual online job postings: 30,910
You might think graphic design would offer a promising future, since it’s tangentially related to the burgeoning tech field, but overall, it doesn’t look good. Only 64.7% of commercial art and graphic design majors have gone on to work full time while 5% are unemployed and 15.3% are no longer seeking work, according to the Hamilton Project. Also, the projected rate of job growth for graphic designers is just 6.2%.
It’s true that graphic designers specializing in print—working at newspapers, magazines and other publishers, for example—are facing major cutbacks along with the rest of the industry. But workers focused on creating designs and images for mobile devices, websites and the like are in higher demand as all sorts of businesses look to develop and improve their digital presence. So if your heart is set on graphic design, skew your studies toward a technology-centric career path and add some computer-related classes to your course load.
Starting salary: $40,500
Mid-career salary: $63,200
Annual online job postings: 733
Anthropology is a pretty popular major for students, but not so much for employers. While more than 12,000 people completed their degrees in anthropology in 2016 (including bachelor’s, master’s and all other degree levels), the number of annual online job postings seeking workers educated in this field is the second-lowest among the 126 college majors we analyzed. Environmental engineering attracted the fewest online job postings at a mere 313. That means a whole lot of competition for anthropology majors in the job market, which doesn’t typically lend itself to competitive pay.
While you might want to become a working anthropologist out in the field given this major, you’re better off heading for the world of academia. Currently, there are 8,292 anthropologists and archaeologists in the U.S., and by 2026, they’re expected to add just 589 positions. On the other hand, there are more than 1.5 million postsecondary teachers, and that high number is expected to grow rapidly, by 14.0% over the next decade. Of course, those numbers can vary greatly by subject matter, but given the popularity of anthropology among students, you can bet colleges require plenty of professors to meet the need. Typically, you’ll need to further your own schooling in order to teach higher education. But at least the median pay is relatively generous at nearly $67,200 a year for all postsecondary teachers.
Starting salary: $38,600
Mid-career salary: $64,100
Annual online job postings: 7,355
This field of study is as unpopular among students as it is potential employers: Only about 7,300 students completed a degree in radio and television in 2016. And while the numbers neatly line up for every graduate in this field to match with an online job posting, it doesn't give you much wiggle room to find a good fit for work. In fact, the obvious jobs you might associate with this major aren't especially desirable: radio and television announcers rank among our worst jobs for the future, facing a 10% decline in positions over the next decade. Besides, even those jobs actually tend to go to grads with degrees in other fields.
Who does score the few jobs available as radio and TV announcers? Employers typically prefer to hire people who have bachelor’s degrees in communications, journalism or broadcasting. Indeed, going with one of these broader fields does tend to offer better prospects. For example, communications majors have median early career pay of $42,200 a year and $74,600 by mid career. And you can still work toward a career in radio and television. Interning in those fields should give you a push in the right direction, too.
Starting salary: $37,000
Mid-career salary: $59,600
Annual online job postings: 12,562
Andy Warhol said, "Making money is art…and good business is the best art." Too bad the reverse is frequently untrue. Fine artists, including painters, sculptors and illustrators, typically collect precious little pay, earning a median income of about $24,614 a year. Demand for their work, after all, is dependent largely on people's discretionary income (and fleeting tastes); when times are tough, purchasing art is left out of most household budgets. Indeed, 4.9% of fine arts majors are unemployed and 19.3% have dropped out of the workforce, according to the Hamilton Project.
Despite the high likelihood of low pay for art majors, students committed to studying art can make their degrees pay off better if they pick the right school to attend. Based on 20-year net “return on investment” calculations from PayScale, the Fashion Institute of Technology, Cornell University and UCLA are the top-ranking schools for arts majors (including fine arts, drama, music, industrial design and more) living on campus and receiving financial aid. FIT has a relatively low four-year cost of $87,600, helping bump up its 20-year ROI to $416,000. That means that over the two decades following college graduation, an art major from FIT can expect to earn $416,000 more than a high school grad, even accounting for the latter’s additional four years in the workforce and the cost of college. Cornell’s and UCLA’s ROIs are $396,000 and $394,000, respectively.
Once you’re out of school, fine arts majors frequently work as designers, according to the Hamilton Project. Fashion designers have a median pay of more than $61,534 a year, but face great competition with projected long-term job growth of just 5.6%. Commercial and industrial designers, who apply their artistry to creating cars, appliances and toys, have slightly better prospects with a median salary of more than $62,552 and expected growth of 6.3%. But you’d likely need to study some architecture or engineering, too.
Mid-career salary: $56,500
Annual online job postings: 7,788
While the number of photographers is expected to expand by about 12% over the next decade—faster than the average 8.6% for all jobs—the demand doesn't develop into a lucrative career. The median income for a photographer is only about $30,690 a year. And that light paycheck may not even be a steady one. Many businesses are fulfilling their photographic needs with freelancers. Indeed, a whopping 66.7% of photographers are currently self-employed (compared with just 6.5% of all workers).
Though classes can help hone your eye, you can actually dive into photography without a college degree—and save yourself the pricey tuition. Landing a gig assisting a professional photographer can be a great opportunity to learn on the job and work on building up your own portfolio, which will be key to advancing your career. If you opt to go to college with this career in mind, consider taking business- and computer-related classes, as well as photography. The former can help prepare you for being self-employed as a photographer. The latter can sharpen your photo processing and editing skills.
1. Culinary Arts
4. Paralegal Studies
6. Graphic Design
7. Radio, TV and Film Production
9. Animal Science
10. Exercise Science
Kiplinger updates many of its rankings annually. Above is our 2016-17 list of the worst 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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