The Worst-Paying College Majors in America

One of the most common reasons people choose to go to college is to open themselves up to as many possibilities for the future—financial success, personal fulfillment, career prospects, and safety and security during retirement.

When it comes to earning potential, not all bachelor's degrees will have the same results—your college choice, grades, and choice of major may significantly influence your ability to get a job.

But some career paths, like those in science, technology, engineering, and math, may provide higher salaries than those in education and the arts. This article looks at the majors that rank lowest regarding 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.
  • While education degrees may appear not to garner a high mid-career salary, teaching salaries vary dramatically state by state and by a teacher's experience.
  • Where you attend school and your major may impact your starting salary at a job.
  • Graduating into a healthy job market when you graduate will impact your outlook, too.

Lowest-Paying Majors

According to a 2021 College Salary Report by Payscale, these are some of the lowest-paying majors an undergrad can pursue. The dollar figures, which are rounded, represent "mid-career pay"—or median earnings for graduates with more than 10 years of work experience.

These are the bottom 10—taken from 827 college majors in 2021:

  • Metalsmithing: $40,300
  • Medical Assisting: $44,800
  • Mental Health: $45,000
  • Early Childhood Education: $45,400
  • Outdoor Education: $46,300
  • Rehabilitation Counseling: $46,400
  • Child and Family Studies: $46,500
  • Addiction Studies: $47,000
  • Equine Studies: $47,100
  • Early Childhood & Elementary Education: $48,400

For comparison, the median mid-career salary for the most lucrative bachelor's degree in the same report was $187,300 (petroleum engineering). Furthermore, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers with only a high school diploma earned just over $780 a week—or an approximate median of $40,600 annually.

STEM Fields Dominate Highest-Paying Majors

The Payscale report found that STEM degrees—science, technology, engineering, and math—tend to be the highest-paying undergraduate majors these days. Only one non-STEM major broke into the top 25. This was a bachelor's degree in political economy.

Petroleum engineering was the top-paid undergraduate major, with a median wage of $187,300 for professionals with more than ten years of experience. The second-highest pay went to graduates in Operations Research & Industrial Engineering at $170,400. Electrical Engineering & Computer Science came in third, at $159,300.

STEM majors not only have higher wages than non-STEM majors in the same field, earning a median income of $101,100 to $87,600, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau. On average, STEM occupations earned more than double what non-STEM earned, and the job outlook is expected to grow at least 10% over the next decade.

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 strongly influence 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 will probably 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.

Graduate Degrees vs. Bachelor Degrees

There are specific majors where one can earn more with a bachelor's degree than those which require a graduate degree. For example, graduates with architecture and engineering bachelor's degrees earned an average of $149,530 annually as of May 2020. While educators with graduate degrees still trailed them, with average incomes of $80,560 annually.

Majoring in a STEM field can make a huge impact on yearly salary. As of 2019 (the most recent figures as of January 2022), those with STEM degrees who worked in computers had the highest annual earnings of $105,300 with engineers ranking second with $102,200. Even the least-earning occupation can bring home over $66,000 annually.

The Bottom Line

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 potentially access to better pension benefits, and are important to the functioning of society as a whole.

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.

Article Sources
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  1. Payscale. "Highest Paying Jobs with a Bachelor's Degree."

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Data on Display: Education Pays, 2020."

  3. U.S. Census Bureau. "STEM Majors Earned More Than Other STEM Workers."

  4. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment in STEM Occupations: Table 1.11 Employment in STEM occupations, 2020 and projected 2030 (Numbers in thousands)."

  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Architectural and Engineering Managers."

  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Postsecondary Teachers."