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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Stacy Rapacon, Online Editor
| February 5, 2019
College is often considered the surest path to a lucrative career. After all, while you can find some promising jobs without a college degree, the majority of the best jobs for the future require you to have at least a bachelor's degree just to get your foot in the door. And this is especially true for those jobs with the biggest paychecks. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a worker with a bachelor's degree typically earns 80% more than someone with just a high school diploma.
But not all college degrees are created equal. To determine which majors typically come with the best hiring prospects and pay, we studied the data for 102 popular college majors. We looked for courses of study that tend to lead to fat paychecks—both right out of school and further 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 have a positive impact on the world because having a sense of purpose can be just as important as having a good payday.
The top of our rankings 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.)
Find details on data sources and our ranking methodology at the end of this story.
Starting salary: $56,000 (Median for all majors: $45,400)
Mid-career salary: $96,500 (Median for all majors: $78,300)
Annual online job postings: 1.3 million (Median for all majors: 103,151)
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 $83,824 a year and are expecting 11.0% job growth over the next decade. Personal financial advisers, who are expected to add 12.0% more positions by 2027, typically earn about $86,715 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: $62,700
Mid-career salary: $123,500
Annual online job postings: 21,252
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 $101,566 a year. For even better pay, an actuarial degree can also lead you to becoming a financial manager, who typically earns nearly $122,733 a year (and is one of our Best Jobs for the Future).
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: $62,300
Mid-career salary: $95,700
Annual online job postings: 32,027
Majoring in this popular field can help build a solid path toward a lucrative career. The median income for an architect — the most obvious job to pursue given this degree — is $70,658 a year. Keep in mind, though, that demand for these professionals can fluctuate with the health of the economy and housing market. Over the past decade, which included the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis, the number of architect positions in the U.S. fell 5.9% to 126,699. The next 10 years are expected to be better, with a job growth rate of 4.6%, slower than the 9.7% rate projected for all jobs but still an improvement.
If you can handle those kinds of ebbs and flows, plan on studying architectural design basics, architectural history, architectural technology and other similar subjects. Learning about eco-friendly designs, too, can help give your career a boost as demand for energy-efficient buildings and structures increases. Also note that many bachelor of architecture programs can take five years to complete on schedule. And after graduation, you need to work a paid internship for up to three years and then pass the Architect Registration Examination in order to earn your license as an architect. Find out more through the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.
Starting salary: $60,700
Mid-career salary: $110,000
Annual online job postings: 88,820
It won't take much force to accelerate a physics major toward a lucrative career (regardless of mass). Physicists have a promising projected job growth rate of 16.1% and a generous median annual salary of nearly $118,830. And while you may need to get an advanced degree to land this role in many research and academic settings—which may be worth the extended and more expensive journey, if you’re so inclined—the federal government and private-sector employers do offer positions to physics bachelors. And your education can also prepare you well for positions in other fields, including technology and engineering, as well as teaching high school. Some jobs to consider with a bachelor's in physics include mechanical, computer and civil engineers—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: $50,200
Mid-career salary: $85,600
Annual online job postings: 103,151
Culinary arts may be one of the worst majors for your career, but add a little science to the mix, and your career can really get cooking. In pursuing this major, you can expect to take courses in a variety of subjects, including agricultural economics, packaging and distribution, food chemistry and food manufacturing.
That curriculum can help prepare you to become a food scientist, who studies and analyzes food to help ensure that it is safe, healthy and nutrient-rich. And increasing public scrutiny of the food industry and its processing work feeds the demand for these experts, with the number of food scientists and technologists having grown by 53.2% over the past decade and being expected to rise another 8.3% over the next decade. Median annual income is $64,147. Other jobs these majors gravitate toward: biological scientist, chemist and nutritionist.
Starting salary: $57,100
Mid-career salary: $105,700
Annual online job postings: 901,406
Majoring in economics is another way to benefit from growing opportunities linked to the big data boom. Like statisticians, economists are mostly employed by the federal government, which may be a limiting factor. But you can also find work with employers specializing in consulting services, scientific research and finance—though you’ll likely need an advanced degree to move beyond entry-level positions. Economists can expect a median salary of $102,482 a year. Employers also look for people with economics degrees to fill positions as financial managers (one of our Best Jobs for the Future), purchasing agents and data analysts.
You can, of course, expect to take a variety of economics classes in college, including micro- and macroeconomics as well as business economics and economic theory. If you pursue a bachelor of science, your focus will be on math, statistics and other quantitative studies. A bachelor of arts likely requires liberal arts and foreign language classes, too.
Starting salary: $47,900
Mid-career salary: $91,000
Annual online job postings: 151,516
If you often find yourself wondering about what makes up the world around you, this could be your major. Chemistry allows you to study the basic composition of matter and how properties can change when they interact. You do so by taking classes focused on various aspects of chemistry, such as inorganic, organic and physical chemistry.
With a bachelor’s in this field, you can become a chemist, but note that certain research positions may require you to also have a master’s or doctoral degree. This job is expected to see a modest increase of about 7.4% in their numbers by 2027, slower than the projected 9.7% growth for all jobs. And the potential pay is generous: Chemists earn an median income of $74,755 a year. Another option is to extend your education and get a Doctor of Pharmacy. Pharmacists earn a median income of $123,864 a year—far more than the median $43,992 for all jobs.
Starting salary: $67,900
Mid-career salary: $106,300
Annual online job postings: 44,954
A new spin on classic chemistry, this field applies the science to different materials, such as ceramics, plastics and metals, to enhance existing variations and create new ones. Demand for this kind of knowledge spans industries, from electronics and energy to transportation and food, as businesses are constantly looking for cheaper, safer and better quality materials for their respective purposes.
To get started as a materials scientist, you typically need a bachelor’s degree, but some research positions may require you to extend your education for a master’s or doctoral degree. It might be worth the added boost. Materials scientists make a median income of $99,549 a year, well above the national median of $43,992 a year. But you can expect some competition: While the number of positions is expected to increase a modest 7.4% over the next decade, slower than the projected 9.7% growth for all jobs, the market remains small with there being just about 8,000 materials scientists currently.
Starting salary: $48,700
Mid-career salary: $79,100
Annual online job postings: 3.7 million
This major can help you hone your entrepreneurial spirit, but allows you to keep your options open, in terms of industry. Workers with this degree wind up in a diverse array of jobs, including accountants, sales supervisors, financial managers and management positions in a variety of fields. 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.
And though you can take your business acumen down whatever career path your passion leads you, you should be comfortable with numbers if you want to earn a degree in this field. 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.
Starting salary: $47,100
Mid-career salary: $85,400
Annual online job postings: 2.1 million
Liberal arts studies, in general, get a bad rap when it comes to career utility. Classics is one major that proves that old trope wrong. Sure, the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture might not seem exactly applicable in the modern job market, but the level of critical thinking and research skills required to do it is highly marketable in a wide range of industries. For example, former classics majors from Georgetown University have gone on to careers in publishing, government, museums, finance and education, to name just a few fields, according to the school’s career education center. Many also continue their schooling and pursue graduate degrees in a variety of subjects, including ancient history and classical archaeology, as well as law and medicine, for which they tend to have high admissions rates.
Bonus: More than half of workers (51%) who hold a bachelor’s in classics report high levels of meaning in their careers.
Starting salary: $69,100
Mid-career salary: $109,100
Annual online job postings: 854,903
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. For example, the number of positions for developers of both applications and systems software (tops on our list of Best Jobs for the Future) are expected to grow by 30.4% and 13.3%, respectively, over the next decade. And they’re compensated accordingly: App developers typically earn about $100,857 a year, and systems software developers rake in even more with a median annual income of $106,653.
Software engineering 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: $70,700
Mid-career salary: $121,700
Annual online job postings: 668
The opportunities in this field may be limited, but the financial rewards are great. There are only about 20,000 nuclear engineers in the country, and while those numbers have risen 12.2% over the past decade, the growth is expected to slow to 5.3% over the next decade, compared with 9.7% growth for all jobs. Plus, you can only find those opportunities in certain pockets of the country. Virginia holds the greatest number of positions, according to the BLS, while New Mexico has the highest concentration of nuclear engineers.
Still, the generous pay might make relocating and competing for the few spots worthwhile, if you’re interested in this subject. The median income for nuclear engineers is $103,043 a year. And in the top-paying states, the average annual wage ranges from $122,950 in Idaho and $138,970 in New Mexico, according to the BLS. To get started in this lucrative field, you definitely need a bachelor’s, but some employers may require a master’s degree or even a PhD. Whatever education level you attain, expect your course load to include many math and science classes, as well as more specific classes such as nuclear engineering design, nuclear-risk assessment and management and thermal hydraulics for nuclear plants.
Starting salary: $66,400
Mid-career salary: $111,300
Annual online job postings: 284,905
This engineering field offers slightly less pay than nuclear engineering but far more employment opportunities. That’s because industrial engineers, who develop systems to make products and provide services in the most efficient way possible, are less specialized and can find work in a range of industries, from aerospace and motor vehicle parts manufacturing to natural gas distribution and oil and gas extraction. And jobs for them can be found all across the country, with the highest levels of employment in Michigan, California and Texas. The national median income for industrial engineers is $85,862 a year. But average pay reaches nearly $107,000 a year in Washington and California; in Texas, above $108,000 a year.
To get a degree in this field, expect to study a lot of math and science, as well as more focused classes such as engineering economics, facilities planning and design and inventory management. Also, if you’re interested in getting some hands-on experience and a master’s degree, some colleges offer a five- or six-year cooperative education plans that combine regular classes with practical and paid work.
Starting salary: $60,200
Mid-career salary: $104,400
Annual online job postings: 2.7 million
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%, and then try working your way up to the boss’s seat.
Not interested in the business side? Skipping those classes (though not literally) can work out just fine, too. Information Technology, Information Systems or Computer Information Systems majors also rank highly as majors. Annual pay for each ranges from $54,800 to $58,200 to start and stretches up to between $89,800 and $98,200 by mid-career.
Starting salary: $49,800
Mid-career salary: $83,400
Another liberal arts degree proves its worth. Just like with classics majors, American studies majors are attractive to employers in a host of industries because of their proven ability to do in-depth research and perform critical analysis. Developing these skills helps prepare them for work in law, journalism, academics, government, museum curation, business, finance and other fields, as well as further education including law school.
Since this is an interdisciplinary major, you have some flexibility in what you focus on and which classes to take. Some typical courses for American Studies majors include American art, American popular culture, ethnicity in America, religion in America, the American wilderness and women in American society, according to The College Board. And given the current political climate, exploring the history of the nation and how we got here—and where we’re likely to head next—could prove particularly interesting and useful.
Starting salary: $82,700
Mid-career salary: $183,600
Annual online job postings: 1,643
Another engineering field, petroleum engineering is well known for paying well. Indeed, this major churns out the top earners of all 102 majors we included in our rankings in both their early and mid-career years. The median income for petroleum engineers is a whopping $132,246 a year.
Downside: The job market is highly competitive with just 35,275 petroleum engineers working in the U.S. today, even after experiencing an impressive 91.3% jump in their numbers over the past decade. The good news is that growth is expected to continue at a rate of 13.1% over the next 10 years, beating the 9.7% growth for all jobs. But again, your job prospects are limited to certain parts of the country, with Texas housing about half of all the positions in the U.S., according to the BLS. Also, the industry in inextricably tied to notoriously volatile oil prices, so the job market may be just as hot and cold.
If you’re willing to take those risks, expect to study plenty of math and science. At the University of Texas, a top school for this field, some courses for the petroleum engineering degree include: engineering, energy and the environment in the first year; mechanics of solids in the second year; petrophysics in the third year; and reservoir geomechanics in the final year.
Starting salary: $65,800
Mid-career salary: $108,700
Annual online job postings: 359,264
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 the theoretical studies. The good news is these cooperative programs do include paid gigs, so you can offset some of those extra 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 (naturally), 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: $59,000
Mid-career salary: $100,400
Annual online job postings: 119,947
Demand for expertise in this field is building. Expectations for population and business growth in the U.S. for the next several years fuels the need for new homes, office buildings, hospitals, schools and structures of all kinds, as well as the improvement and maintenance of existing buildings and infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and sewer pipe systems. That means growing opportunities for construction managers, an obvious professional goal for this academic path. Plus, their median income is a solid $71,781 a year.
But remember that demand for these professionals can fluctuate with the economy and housing market. Over the past decade, which included the aftermath of the 2008 housing crisis, the number of construction managers in the U.S. fell 17.4% to 396,511. The next 10 years are expected to be better, with a slow-but positive job growth rate of 3.3%.
In obtaining this degree, expect to study a variety of subjects, covering both the physical labor of the related work and the business side of the industry. That includes courses such as construction materials and systems, blueprint reading, cost management, labor law and electrical and mechanical systems.
Starting salary: $68,800
Mid-career salary: $113,900
Annual online job postings: 2.2 million
Back to the computer lab for another promising field of study. This broad tech subject can help prepare you for a number of jobs in the hot tech field, from app developer to systems analyst—both of which are among our picks for 30 of the best jobs for the future. Computer systems analysts make a median $87,142 a year and have a projected job growth rate of 11.9%. App developers earn a median income of $100,857 a year and are expected to grow their numbers by 30.4% over the next decade.
Learning to program is a key part of this major. Some classes you can expect to take include the theory of formal languages, intro to program design, digital system design and artificial intelligence.
Starting salary: $66,000
Mid-career salary: $110,300
Annual online job postings: 35,893
The tech and healthcare industries are dominant players in the job market—and this major combines the two. As a student of biomedical engineering, you can expect to learn about all the ways technology impacts medicine, whether in the development of new biomedical devices such as artificial internal organs or in working with diagnostic machines and rehabilitative exercise equipment. Of course, you need to be comfortable with math and science courses. Some specific classes you can expect to take include anatomy, biomechanics and micromachines and robotics. Also plan to put in plenty of lab time. Many degree programs even include more hands-on experience with co-ops or internships with hospitals or medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturing companies.
With your bachelor’s degree, you can become a biomedical engineer, though some employers might require an advanced degree. And the number of positions has been growing, due to the aging population’s demand for biomedical solutions to their mounting health problems. Over the past decade, their ranks boomed 33.5% and is expected to continue growing at a healthy rate of 8.4% by 2027. Median income for these professionals is $88,046 a year. And the emotional payoff seems high, too, with 71% of workers who had this major reporting a high sense of meaning in their careers.
Starting salary: $60,400
Mid-career salary: $101,100
Annual online job postings: 259,586
Of all the many engineering fields that appear on this list, this major unfortunately turns out the lowest entry-level pay. But you can expect that salary to reach six figures by mid-career. (And hey, Mexican business mogul Carlos Slim—one of the richest people in the world—studied civil engineering and gets by just fine.) And the opportunities are far more plentiful than they are in many other engineering fields. Civil engineers, who design and supervise the construction of airports, sewer systems and other large projects, are expected to add more than 38,000 positions to their already robust ranks of 323,245 by 2027. Median pay for this job is $83,283 a year.
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: $71,800
Mid-career salary: $126,900
Annual online job postings: 116,736
This major takes the study of chemistry and materials science one step further into the process of producing commercial goods by adding engineering. As a student of this field, you’ll learn how to use raw materials to create products such as clothes, food, fuel, drugs and much more. Typical courses for this path include biochemistry, chemical kinetics and thermodynamics, as well as many other types of math and science.
One obvious career goal when studying this field: Become a chemical engineer, a lucrative profession that boasts a median income of $102,170 a year. But it’s a small market with just 35,350 or so of these professionals now working in the U.S. Still, those positions have been growing and should continue to grow, up 17.5% over the past decade and expected to rise another 8.0% over the next decade. Other jobs this major can help prepare you for include: chemist, materials scientist, petroleum engineer and pharmacist.
Starting salary: $72,600
Mid-career salary: $120,000
Annual online job postings: 1.7 million
All those in-demand tech majors and workers noted earlier need something to work on. Enter the computer hardware engineers. These workers research, design, develop and improve computer systems, as well as components including circuit boards, networks and routers. And they’re not limited to working on PCs and Macs. Computers can be found everywhere, from in your car and coffee maker to medical equipment and airplanes, helping to drum up demand for these kinds of engineers across a variety of industries. That helps drive their projected job growth rate to 9.4% over the next decade. Their median income is $115,045 a year.
To complete this major, plan for a math- and science-heavy class schedule. Specific courses you can expect to have to take include computer architecture, digital-logic design and systems programming. And you’ll have to keep learning throughout your career as rapidly as technology advances.
Starting salary: $61,400
Mid-career salary: $77,600
Annual online job postings: 1.6 million
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 advancing technology helping people live longer, healthier lives. And prospects for registered nurses (RNs) and nurse practitioners (NPs)—both among our Best Jobs for the Future—are particularly promising with their numbers expected to grow by 16.3% and 35.2%, respectively, over the next decade. RNs earn a median $69,789 a year; NPs typically make nearly $103,947 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, the highest share of all 102 majors included in our rankings.
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.
Starting salary: $69,900
Mid-career salary: $118,100
Annual online job postings: 1.1 million
Not too shocking: Our gadget-driven world has a high demand for people who can design, build and improve electronic and electrical devices. Indeed, following a decade of job growth at a robust rate of 22.7%, the number of positions for electrical engineers is expected to keep growing by 10.7% over the next decade. And the paycheck reflects the high demand: Median income is $94,515 a year with average pay topping $110,00 a year in the highest-paying states of Massachusetts and Alaska, as well as the District of Columbia.
Your coursework—and real work potential—looks very similar to that of computer engineering students, a field which is considered a branch of electrical engineering. That’s because of the proliferation of computers being used to operate all sorts of products. But your studies will not be limited to just computer-operated electronics. So you can expect to take courses such as circuit analysis and design, digital systems, electric components and tools and semiconductor technology.
Kiplinger updates its rankings of college majors annually. Above is our list of the best college majors for a lucrative career from the 2017-2018 academic year. 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.
For each of the 102 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 each college major 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 2017 and the second quarter of 2018 that were seeking applicants with each of the 102 college majors. Projected 10-year growth rates from 2017 to 2027 for related occupations came from Emsi, a labor-market research firm owned by Strada Education. Emsi collects data from dozens of 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.