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Updated Dec 20, 2023

The Best and Worst Majors (and What to Do if Yours Falls Into the Latter Category)

Here are the college majors with the highest and lowest earning potential now.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when choosing a college major. You need to consider many factors before committing to a specific subject and industry, including, but not limited to, salary and job stability.

To offer some guidance on your decision, we’ve outlined the majors that lead to the highest-paying jobs, along with the worst majors for earning potential – and what to do if your interests fall in a low-paying industry.

Highest-paying majors by degree

A study from PayScale is updated annually to list the best-paying jobs for associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. Previously, PayScale also listed the highest-paying jobs for master’s degrees, but it no longer does. 

As of 2021, these are the highest-paying majors in each degree. The associate’s and bachelor’s statistics, ranked by early- and mid-career salary, come from PayScale. The master’s average salaries, from Indeed, are presented as singular figures rather than ranges.

Highest-paying associate’s degrees

  1. Computer Science & Mathematics: $45,500-$106,000
  2. Nondestructive Testing: $49,900-$99,800
  3. Radiation Therapy: $65,300-$95,700
  4. Software Engineering: $53,600-$94,000
  5. Instrumentation Technology: $51,300-$90,800
  6. Instrumentation & Control Engineering: $54,700-$88,800
  7. Electrical & Computer Engineering: $47,200-$87,600
  8. Project Management: $50,900-$85,800
  9. Network Engineering: $52,500-$85,300
  10. Instrumentation & Control (which differs from Instrumentation & Control Engineering): $61,100-$84,200

Highest-paying bachelor’s degrees

  1. Petroleum Engineering: $93,200-$187,300
  2. Operations Research & Industrial Engineering: $84,800-$170,400
  3. Electrical Engineering & Computer Science: $108,500-$159,300
  4. Interaction Design: $68,300-$155,800
  5. Public Accounting: $59,800-$147,700
  6. Operations Research: $83,500-$147,400
  7. Applied Economics & Management: $66,100-$146,400
  8. Business Computing: $73,000-$143,600
  9. Actuarial Mathematics: $64,300-$143,400
  10. Electrical Power Engineering: $76,100-$142,600
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Highest-paying master’s degrees

  1. Nursing Anesthesia: $176,386
  2. Information Technology: $121,769
  3. Business Administration: $114,083
  4. Finance: $108,518
  5. Software Engineering: $107,366
  6. Nursing: $107,076
  7. Electrical Engineering: $104,119
  8. Statistics: $104,009
  9. Physician Assistant Studies: $103,648
  10. Economics: $94,319
Key TakeawayKey takeaway
For the most part, the best majors for earning potential are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Overall worst majors

Money isn’t everything, and there are plenty of other factors to think about when choosing an industry, such as hiring demand and job satisfaction. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and MoneyWise put together a list of the lowest-earning majors, taking aspects like pay and projected growth into consideration:

  • Cosmetology
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Graphic Arts
  • Massage Therapy
  • Medical Transcription
  • Mental Health
  • Metalsmithing
  • Office Systems Technology
  • Pastry and Culinary Arts
  • Pharmacy Technology
  • Phlebotomy
  • Radio and Television
  • Social Work
  • Veterinary Technology
Looking for inspiration to start your own business? This career route doesn't require a degree. Read our guide to the best business ideas for more details.

Advice for low-paying majors

The trends may suggest that the communications and art industries are not thriving, while the science and mathematics arenas are flourishing. But this doesn’t mean you should quit your passion without giving it a chance.

“Studying a subject you’re passionate about is a good idea, whether it’s expected to pay well or not,” said Stacy Rapacon, managing editor at Kiplinger. “Just be sure you go into it with reasonable expectations about what the future might hold for you when it comes to job prospects and potential pay.”

Is a low-paying field still worthwhile? It all depends on how much you are willing to risk. If you have ambitions burning within you, you might look past the possibilities of low income and instability to focus strictly on reaching your goals. You could also find ways to pursue your passions on the side of a career that pays the bills. Just because you’re interested in a given job doesn’t mean you need to focus solely on that industry. There are many fields and skills you can study and master that might actually help you in your dream career.

“I’d recommend trying to pick up some classes and experience in the fields that are considered more promising,” Rapacon said. “You might be surprised to find that you do have some interest in a different field or that you can at least learn some useful skills.”

Importance of workplace experience

For either category – the higher-paying or the lower-paying majors – there are steps you can take to increase your earning potential right out of your degree program by getting some real-world experience during college.

One way to gain experience is by taking an internship in your major field. (Make sure you know what you’re getting into before committing; some internships are unpaid or low paying.) If you can apply to an internship within your specialty department or unit in an organization or company, so much the better. 

If your school is in an area where such internships are available, you might be able to find a part-time slot during the school year, or talk to your administration to see if you might be able to substitute this experience for part of your course load. Otherwise, get your application in as early as possible for a summer internship, because these slots fill up quickly.

Most college departments also hire teaching, laboratory or research assistants from their pool of students. To find out about these opportunities, talk to your department advisor (if you have one) or a specific instructor whose work interests you.

Whether or not you work within your major area, you’re always acquiring skills that transfer from one job to another, whatever work you do. You might have to think creatively to assert these, but any on-the-job skills you develop are valid.

For example, in a retail or fast food scenario, you will pick up abilities that translate to other work: customer relations means you can communicate with a range of people; working with an ordering system or cash register shows you can learn new systems; handling multiple requests from customers and co-workers at the same time gives you the skill to prioritize for efficiency. Expressing what you’ve learned is just a matter of using the right resume language.

Whatever direction you take for your major, now is the time to determine your near-future priorities. If you can earn high while doing work you love, lucky you. If your passion takes you down a lower-earning path, there’s no need to lose hope. 

There will be many other factors to take into account once you graduate: the cost of living in different regions; ways to climb the earnings ladder; additional skills you bring to your work that you’ve acquired, either by specializing within your major or through classes or real-world experience in another environment; and many more. 

Any student should keep in touch with academic advisors, formal or otherwise, and talk to as many people who work in your area of interest as you can while you make your way through your degree program.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Max Freedman has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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