Aug 5, 2009

Majors That Pay

Very few high school students have a clear idea of what it means to “major” in a subject in college. They can toss around subject areas the most popular of which are psychology, international studies, communications, and business. But if you ask for a connection between major and what it is they want to do after graduation, the responses get a little foggier. And that’s really alright. The vast majority of undergraduates change majors at least once and many change frequently. I changed majors three times (that I can remember), finally settling on English, not because it would get me a job, but more because I had a fair number of credit hours already stacked up in the department and I seemed to like and do well in the classes.

Boy was that a mistake! According to a survey recently released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), I would have been much better off in life sticking with my original major—math. Evidently, the top 15 highest-earning degrees all have one thing in common: math skills. It’s no secret that tech fields are driving salaries, but the results of the NACE survey present quite a compelling picture. Engineering degrees account for 12 of the top-paying majors with petroleum engineering by far the most lucrative degree at an average starting salary of $83,121 (are we rethinking West Virginia University yet?), followed by chemical and mining engineering at $64,902 and $64,404 respectively. Here are the rest of the findings from the NACE survey:

Undergraduate Major

Starting Salary

1. Petroleum Engineering


2. Chemical Engineering


3. Mining Engineering


4. Computer Engineering


5. Computer Science


6. Electrical Engineering


7. Mechanical Engineering


8. Industrial Engineering


9. Systems Engineering


10. Engineering Technology


11. Actuarial Science


12. Aeronautical Engineering


13. Agricultural Engineering


14. Biomedical Engineering


15. Construction Management


This data confirms findings released by PayScale, which conducted a less rigorous but equally math-dominated study of degrees that pay:

Best Undergrad College Degrees By Salary

Starting Median Salary

Mid-Career Median

Aerospace Engineering



Chemical Engineering



Computer Engineering



Electrical Engineering









Mechanical Engineering



Computer Science



Industrial Engineering



Environmental Engineering












Civil Engineering



Construction Management






Management Information Systems



Computing and Information Systems









PayScale puts English at #47, after history and landscape architecture, with a starting salary about 40% that of chemical engineering. And sadly, both studies agree that social work comes in dirt last in the salary race.


  1. Maybe you would have been better off economically by sticking with math, but not everyone is cut out to be a math or engineering major. I say, if you want to be an English major, be an English major.

  2. So true! And here I am drawing on all my training to keep up with a blog that seems to have developed a life of its own. Only Garrison Keillor really understands what it's like to go through life as an English major:

  3. It's amazing how low finance is on the list, guess the financial crisis claims another victim.