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Most and least lucrative college majors

The value of a bachelor’s degree, in dollars and cents.

By Rich_Maloof Sep 16, 2013 4:51PM

With the average tuition and fees for private colleges at a gut-punching $29,056 per year, students and their gently weeping parents may be wondering which fields of study stand to see the greatest financial returns. 

Of course, an untold number of additional factors beyond a student’s major influence employability and income. And there is more value in a good education than setting up a high starting salary. But for anyone who wants to evaluate the worth of a college degree in dollars and cents, the numbers have officially been crunched.

Offshore oil rig. (© Mayumi Terao/Getty Images)Anthony Carnevale, an economist at Georgetown University, and two colleagues researched the median earnings for full-time workers with bachelor’s degrees (no workers with graduate degrees are included in the data below) and shared the study results with NPR

Here are the three most lucrative and three least lucrative majors according to Carnevale’s research, with median incomes included.

Majors with the highest earnings

Petroleum Engineering:  $120,000

Pharmacy Sciences/Administration: $105,000

Mathematics and Computer Science: $98,000

All seven of the remaining top 10 majors with the highest median earnings were engineering degrees, according to the research. Earning median incomes between $80,000 and $87,000 were majors in aerospace, chemical, naval architecture/marine, mechanical, metallurgical, and mining and mineral engineering. Looking more broadly, the median income for all workers with a bachelor’s degree in engineering was $75,000.

Majors with the lowest earnings

Counseling Psychology: $29,000

Early Childhood Education: $36,000

Theology and Religious Vocations: $38,000

The seven remaining top 10 majors with lowest median earnings,  ranging from $38,000 to $40,000, were human services and community organization, social work, drama and theater arts, studio arts, communication disorders sciences, visual and performing arts, and health and medical preparatory programs. 

Apparently wary of scaring people away from higher education, Carnevale and co. open their study with a memorable insight. 

When considering the question of whether earning a college degree is worth the investment in these uncertain economic times, here is a number to keep in mind: 84 percent

On average, that is how much more money a full-time, full-year worker with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn over a lifetime than a colleague who has no better than a high school diploma.

To learn more, including income differences by gender and race, see What’s It Worth: The Economic Value of College Majors from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. 

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Photo: Offshore oil rig (© Mayumi Terao/Getty Images)


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