Highest Paying College Majors : Making the Major Decision

For those finishing up their final year in high school, the decision of where to go to college is most likely, or soon to be, over. You can finally take a breath and have an answer to your Aunt Betty’s constant nagging, “So, have you decided yet?” You’ve made a huge, important decision. But, it is only the first of many. The next one you will begin to think about, and should have already started thinking about, is what you will major in.

Student Thinking About Money When Deciding a College Major

Weighing the options: passion vs. pay

College students (and future college students) can be broken down into three main categories when it comes to deciding on a college major. There are the ones that follow their hearts and there are the ones that follow the money…and then there are the general psych majors who just ran out of time to decide and ended up picking the most generalized, popular degree.

I was one of the former. I knew I wanted to major in photography and spend my life doing what I had a passion for. I had dreamt of going to Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, the top photography school in the nation. I even went through two phone interviews and got accepted.

It was the advising of my grandfather though, who consistently warned about the limited earning potential and the need for a “back-up plan”, that made me ultimately decide to go a liberal arts university. I could major in the subject I had loved, but at the same time get a well-rounded education along with a minor in, as my grandfather would put it, a more “practical” subject.

Highest paying college majors

Even if future earning potential is not your prime focus when choosing a college major, it sure wasn’t for me, it most likely plays at least a small part. There’s really no other reasons to decide a major beyond if it is something you truly want to do or it is something that will be beneficial, financially or otherwise. The jackpot is when you find the major that does both. You want to have a good paying career that allows you financial security and support, but you also don’t want to dread going to work every day.

Many recent studies have shown that the subject you major in is actually more indicative of future earning potential than the college you attend. Students who major in petroleum engineering, the highest earning college degree, on average make 3.5 times more per year than those who major in early childhood education. For the most part, majors in the Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) fields dominate the top of the lists.

According to Forbes, the highest paying college majors are:

    1. Petroleum Engineering
    2. Pharmaceutical Sciences
    3. Metallurgical Engineering
    4. Mineral Engineering
    5. Chemical Engineering
    6. Electrical Engineering
    7. Aerospace Engineering
    8. Mechanical Engineering
    9. Computer Engineering
    10. Geological Engineering
Median based on college majors in general fields. Source: Georgetown University

Median income based on general fields of study in college. Source: Georgetown University Report

The downside of high-paying majors

Though tempting, be careful when choosing a degree solely on the earning potential. According to a report by Georgetown University, even though architecture degrees have higher starting and median salaries, the unemployment rate is twice that of the lower-earning education degrees. Also, choosing a degree in the area of STEM may not guarantee a large salary; there are drastic differences in earning potential for different careers in the same field. For example, the top earners with a degree in economics earn three times the salary of the lowest earners.

The authors of the Georgetown study also pointed out that earning potential is greatly impacted by actual work experience earned and location of career: for-profit, non-profit, public or government sectors.

Choosing a college major

Though a degree in engineering or physics may earn you more than a degree in anthropology or journalism, not every student will do well in those majors and careers. The decision for a college major should be based not only on future earning potential, but where you will succeed and find a passion.

With so many options for majors and schools, it can be difficult narrowing down the decision. (Hence that third group who just settled with a general psychology or general education degree). We are talking about the rest of your life, after all. Deciding on what to major in is one of the biggest decisions you will make during your time at college.

Pre-college summer programs can help you narrow down that decision. Think you may be interested in a career in engineering? Check out Blueprint’s engineering program for high school students at Lehigh or Univ. of Florida. You may find a passion for environmental engineering, or you may decide it’s just not for you. Either way, you will be closer to making that final decision on a college major.