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The Worst-Paying College Majors in America

Friday August 24, 2018
Joseph A. Dallegro

Know anyone who decided to study teaching or art for the money? Didn't think so. TIME, using data from work done by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, entitled "What's It Worth: The Economic Value of College Majors", report some of the lowest earning majors an undergrad can pursue. (For more, see: The Declining Value of a College Degree.)

Lowest Paying Degrees

These are the lowest paying college degrees, and their median earnings per year:

Visual and Performing Arts: $40,000

Communications-Disorders Sciences and Services: $40,000

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Studio Arts: $40,000

Drama and Theater Arts: $40,000

Social Work: $39,000

Human Services and Community Organizations: $38,000

Theology and Religious Studies: $38,000

Early Childhood Education: $36,000

Counseling and Psychology: $29,000

(source: The Economic Value of College Majors: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce)

For comparison, the median worker aged 25 to 59 with only a high school diploma makes $36,000 annually, according to the report.

STEM Degrees

The report found that STEM degrees – science, technology, engineering and math – tend to be the highest paying undergraduate degrees. Petroleum engineering is the top-paid undergraduate degree, with a median wage of $136,000 for professionals aged 25 to 59, according to data the Center on Education and the Workforce analyzed. The second highest pay goes to pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration graduates, at $113,000. Metallurgical engineering comes in third, at $98,000. (For more, see: The College Degrees You Should Have Gotten.)

There is some overlap, of course. A top-paid educator can certainly earn more than a low-paid engineer. And there are many variables other than college coursework that have a strong influence on earnings – work ethic, one's ability to self-promote, and even dumb luck (“I know your dad from summer camp, why don't you come in for an interview?”). Where you go to school is also a factor, as a degree from the Ivy League or a top-ranked state university is probably going to prove more lucrative than one from a for-profit school. Still, the Center on Education and the Workforce found that, on average, education degree holders average $45,000 in annual income, far lower than the average engineer and 26% less than the average worker with a bachelors.

“Bachelor’s degree holders in some majors earn more than many graduate degree holders,” the Center on Education and the Workforce stated in its report. It went on to note that those with architecture and engineering bachelors earn an average of $83,000 annually, while education majors who go through the time and expense of earning graduate degrees (as 45% do) only earn an average of $60,000 annually. (For more, see: Top 8 Most Profitable Majors of 2015.)

The difference in pay is evident right after graduation. The average college graduate (aged 21 to 24) earns $37,000 at the entry level, the Center on Education and the Workforce found, but recent graduates with a STEM degree average $43,000 on entering the workforce, while those with arts, humanities and liberal arts degrees average $29,000 at the start of their careers. Both figures far outpace that of recent high school graduates, who average $22,000 annually.

The Major Impact

The median STEM major aged 25 to 59 earns $76,000, while the median salary of someone with an arts, humanities or liberal arts degree is $51,000. Median incomes for teaching or serving degrees (which includes education, psychology and social work majors) are lowest at $46,000. Business majors are the most common – about 26% of all undergraduates have some sort of business degree – and fall in the upper middle of median incomes, at $65,000. (For more, see: What Education Do You Need to Become a Billionaire?)

Graduates with low-paying majors earn less than half that of the highest paid, and over a career spanning more than 40 years, the difference adds up. The report's authors noted that what you major in can have a bigger impact, financially, than whether or not you attend college. “Over a lifetime, the average difference between a high school and college graduate’s wages is $1 million, but the difference between the lowest and the highest paying majors is $3.4 million,” they stated.

The Bottom Line

Teachers get more vacation time than many other professionals, often have better job security and pension benefits, and are rather important to the functioning of society as a whole. But an incoming college student looking to earn high wages upon graduation should probably look elsewhere. (For more, see: 5 High-Paying, Low-Stress Jobs.)


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