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

Max Freedman
Max Freedman

While the best majors for earning a high salary are usually in STEM or finance, low salary potential shouldn't deter you from pursuing your dreams.

  • The best college majors for earning a high salary typically pertain to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), with some finance options in the mix.
  • The lowest-paying degrees lean more toward artistic and social endeavors.
  • If the field calling your name typically leads to low pay, that shouldn't stop you from pursuing your dreams.
  • This article is for prospective or early college students looking to figure out their career choices.

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 money 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 best majors in each degree that pay the most. The associate's and bachelor's statistics, ranked by early-and mid-career salary, come from PayScale. The master's average salaries are presented as singular figures rather than ranges and come from Indeed.

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 (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

TipTip: When you're applying for a job, consider running a background check on yourself first with software such as AccurateNow. This way, you'll avoid any unwanted surprises and reasons for denial in your job search.

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 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. Considering all aspects from pay to projected growth, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and MoneyWise put together a list of the worst majors:

  • 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

TipTip: Looking for inspiration on an idea 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 sciences 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, online 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."

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 while focusing 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 are 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."

Chad Brooks and Sammi Caramela contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images
Max Freedman
Max Freedman
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Max Freedman is a content writer who has written hundreds of articles about small business strategy and operations, with a focus on finance and HR topics. He's also published articles on payroll, small business funding, and content marketing. In addition to covering these business fundamentals, Max also writes about improving company culture, optimizing business social media pages, and choosing appropriate organizational structures for small businesses.