One of the most common reasons why people choose to go to college is to open themselves up to as many possibilities for the future—financial success, personal fulfillment, career prospects, as well as safety and security during retirement. But do you know anyone who decided to study teaching or art for the money? Probably not. Unfortunately, many of the lowest-paying jobs are concentrated in these fields. This article looks at the majors that rank lowest when it comes to earning potential.

Key Takeaways

  • Many of the lowest-paying undergraduate majors today are in education and the arts.
  • By contrast, science, technology, engineering, and math degrees (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

According to a 2015 report by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce entitled The Economic Value of College Majors, 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. These were in 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 graduates in pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and pharmaceutical administration at $113,000. Metallurgical engineering came in third, at $98,000.

STEM majors between the ages of 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—including 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."

Of course, there are exceptions. 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. 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 financial impact 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. 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.