Know anyone who decided to study teaching or art for the money? Didn't think so.

Unfortunately, many of today's lowest-paying jobs are concentrated in those fields, according to research by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Key Takeaways

  • Many of the lowest-paying undergraduate majors today are in education and the arts.
  • By contrast, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) dominate the highest-paying majors.
  • Over a 40-year career, the difference in income between a low-paying major and a high-paying one can be more than $3 million.

Lowest-Paying Majors

Based on the Georgetown center's most recent data, from "What's It Worth: The Economic Value of College Majors," published in 2015, these are some of the lowest-paying majors an undergrad can pursue. The dollar figures, which are rounded, represent median earnings per year for workers age 25 to 59.

Early Childhood Education: $39,000

Human Services and Community Organization: $41,000

Studio Arts: $42,000

Social Work: $42,000

Teacher Education: Multiple Levels: $42,000

Visual and Performing Arts: $42,000

Theology and Religious Vocations: $43,000

Elementary Education: $43,000

Drama and Theater Arts: $45,000

Family and Consumer Sciences: $45,000

Language and Drama Education: $45,000

Special Needs Education: $45,000

For comparison, the median salary for all workers age 25 to 59 with bachelor's degrees was $61,000 a year, while workers with only a high school diploma earned a median $36,000 annually, according to the report.

STEM Fields Dominate Highest-Paying Majors

The report found that STEM degrees—science, technology, engineering, and math—tend to be the highest-paying undergraduate majors these days. In fact, only two non-STEM majors broke into the top 25: economics and business economics.

Petroleum engineering was the top-paid undergraduate major, with a median wage of $136,000 for professionals age 25 to 59. The second highest pay went to pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and pharmaceutical administration graduates, at $113,000. Metallurgical engineering came in third, at $98,000.

Overall, STEM majors age 25 to 59 earned a median annual salary of $76,000, while the median salary of those with arts, humanities, or liberal arts degrees was $51,000. Median incomes for teaching or serving degrees (which includes education, psychology, and social work majors) were lowest, at $46,000. Business majors were in between, at $65,000.

What's more, "STEM majors not only have the highest wages, they experience the largest wage growth over the course of their careers," according to the report. "Their wages grow by 50%, compared to 28% growth for college graduates in teaching and serving-related majors."

There are exceptions, of course. A top-paid educator can certainly earn more than a low-paid engineer. And there are many variables other than college coursework that have a strong influence on earnings—work ethic, one's ability to self-promote, and even dumb luck (“I know your dad from summer camp, why don't you come in for an interview?”). Where you go to school is also a factor, as a degree from the Ivy League or a top-ranked state university is probably going to prove more lucrative than one from a for-profit college. But the choice of a major still makes a huge difference.

An undergraduate degree in some fields can be more lucrative than a graduate degree in others.

“Bachelor’s degree holders in some majors earn more than many graduate degree holders,” the report stated. It went on to note that graduates with architecture and engineering bachelor's degrees earned an average of $83,000 annually, while education majors with graduate degrees still trailed them, with average incomes of $60,000 annually.

The difference in pay is evident right after graduation. The average college graduate earned $37,000 at the entry level, the report found. But those with STEM degrees averaged $43,000, while their classmates with arts, humanities, and liberal arts degrees averaged $29,000. Both figures far outpaced the entry-level pay of recent high school graduates, who averaged $22,000 annually.

The Bottom Line

Graduates with low-paying majors can earn less than half the annual income of the highest-paid grads, and over a career spanning more than 40 years, the difference adds up. In fact, the report's authors maintain that what you major in can have a bigger impact, financially, than whether or not you attend college. “Over a lifetime, the average difference between a high school and college graduate’s wages is $1 million, but the difference between the lowest- and the highest-paying majors is $3.4 million,” they wrote.

Future income is only one consideration in choosing a college major, of course. And lower-paying professions can have their perks. Teachers, for example, typically enjoy more vacation time than many other professionals, often have greater job security and better pension benefits, and are important to the functioning of society as a whole. But an incoming college student hoping to earn a big salary after graduation should probably look elsewhere.