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Your Take: Best Paying College Major Lists

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I started my college experience back in the summer of 1998 in a degree in which every graduate had a fantastic job with an incredible company – computer science. Computer science graduates were getting snapped up by tech startups left and right, the tech boom was in full swing, and back in 1998, the companies were mostly legitimate. While in school, I packed my semesters full of classes and was set to graduate a semester early, December of 2001, when the dot com bubble burst is spectacular fashion in the spring of that year. Jobs were no longer plentiful and I would extend my college experience to include a Master’s degree before graduating into a much healthier job market a year later.

The lesson from all that? Four years is a long time. The best paying college major in 1998, when you start college, may not be the best (or even close to the best) when you graduate in 2002. Fortunately for me, computer science was a degree that would always be in the top ten for many years later and I enjoyed it.

When I see lists like this one, that list the top 15 college majors by median pay (taken from the latest College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs), I force myself to remember that four years is a lot of time. The list itself is less valuable than the trends.

What’s the trend? Engineering is always king. Look at any list and you’ll see the top of the list peppered with a variety of engineering disciplines – computer, chemical, electrical, mechanical, aerospace, industrial, and civil. What else will you see on those lists? Math. Economics and financial management, #13 and #14 on that list, are proxies for mathematics (not the hardcore theoretical stuff that a mathematics degree demands, but it requires a healthy dose of math).

Finally, you’ll always see pre-med because medicine is an expensive field to be involved in. After ten years of education, internships, and residencies, you get the pleasure of earning six figures that is chewed up by insurance and loan payments. You get paid six figures because the expenses are tremendous. Good for them because we can manage fewer engineers (the pipeline there is four years), it’s tougher to get more doctors (if the pipeline is ten years of grueling punishment).

What do you think about these lists?

{ 15 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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15 Responses to “Your Take: Best Paying College Major Lists”

  1. tom says:

    I think these are good starting points for kids trying to figure out what they want to do.

    You can’t just stay undeclared for 3 years anymore and expect to find a job when you get out. You have to be more strategic thinking about college costs vs. future job prospects and salaries.

  2. Martha says:

    I think those lists are a valuable resource along with researching how many jobs are expected to be available in a particular field. I like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – For example, aerospace engineering may sound really cool and may pay really well but if there are fewer jobs than applicants you may be better off studying electrical engineering which may be more broadly applicable.

    I also think the lists are a good resource when deciding where to go to college. If you know your potential median salary then you can determine if you can afford to take out student loans to attend a private school vs. attending a lower cost state university.

    All things to keep in mind when choosing a major!

  3. cvargo says:

    Its all how you apply yourself. I am 23 years old, graduated with my bachelors in Political Science emphasis in public administration and I got a job before I graduated and I make over 80K a year living in Utah. You need to do what you love and not focus on money, once an employeer sees how passionate you are the job and money will come. I might be the minority but I didn’t chase the money I chased a job that i knew I would enjoy doing

  4. cvargo says:

    computer acted funny not sure my last comment went through so if it did sorry for duplicating it: I personally think that these lists are great but not necessary. I am 23 years old graduated with my bachelors in Political Science emphasis public administration in dec. 2010. I got a job right away and am making 80K. I know that i ma the minority but I didn’t chase the money I chased a degree and a career doing something taht I know I will enjoy everyday.

  5. I think that they are decent tools but you shouldn’t base your major solely off of them. I became an accounting major because I knew it was the best business discipline and I wanted to have a business major. I sure am glad I didn’t pick finance though because I recently graduated into this giant economic mess.

  6. I picked aerospace engineering because it was something I was good at and I thought there would be good job opportunities. I wasn’t thinking about the money, but now that I look back I couldn’t be more happy that I did pick this field. It allows me to make a good salary while still pursuing hobbies like coaching, pf blogging, etc.

  7. freeby50 says:

    I’m surprised that actuary isn’t on that list, its usually in those lists.

    I graduated with an engineering degree just as unemployment peaked after a recession. I returned to school and got another degree and then entered a much better job market. 4 years is a while but I don’t think people would worry about career choice based on what the economy might do short term. Theres always going to be recessions and ups and downs in employment. You should look at a longer 10+ year horizon and evaluate if a career is going to be around long term.

  8. Jim M says:

    I encourage all those going to college to follow their dreams – study something they enjoy and not to pay any attention to lists showing which majors are likely to return the most money. There is a lot of joy in low paying professions and we should encourage everyone to follow their dreams.

  9. Greenwich "Author" says:

    Have you taken a look at the study from Georgetown University?

  10. What to I personally think about these lists?

    I think they distort the very reason for higher education. Real education is not vocational training; its purpose is to build effective citizens & leaders and to furnish the mind.

    If you want to make six figures, you’d be better off getting an AA in business management and accounting and then starting a service business. Most millionaires in this country are owners of small companies that perform services that can’t be offshored, such as carpet cleaning and plumbing. Higher-level executives tend to have degrees in the liberal arts, because real education fosters logical thinking and creativity, skills that are needed in the upper levels of the corporate world.

    • freeby50 says:

      “Higher-level executives tend to have degrees in the liberal arts”

      Where did you get that from?

      I found a study that said the most common degrees for S&P 500 company CEOs were engineering 20%, business 15% and economics 10% with liberal arts 4th at 10%.
      I’ll post the link if it will let me.

  11. collegekid says:

    To touch on the point above about poli sci. I ALSO got a BA in Poli Sci and got my first job in healthcare IT. Since then I am still in healthcare IT making closer to six figures then I ever thought and am 3 classes away from finishing a masters in project management. The bachelors degree itself shows nothing more to potential employers other then the fact that YOU ARE TRAINABLE AND CAN LEARN. Once a company knows you can be taught, you are a perfect employee.

  12. ace carolla says:

    my ex is a civil engineer and drives a porsche and a beemer.

    ah, the one that got away…

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