The Worst-Paying College Majors in America

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.
  • Depending on the occupation, mid-career pay for Bachelor's degree holders ranges an average of over $187,300 to $40,300 - almost a $150,000 difference.

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 ten years of work experience.

These are the bottom ten -- 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 (for 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. In fact, only one non-STEM majors broke into the top 25. This was a bachelor's 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 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.

There are certain 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. Even the least earning occupation can bring home over $66,000 annually. As of 2019, those with STEM degress who worked in computers had the highest annual earnings of $105,300 with engineers ranking second with $102,200.

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. Keep in mind, mid-career pay ranges an average of over $187,000 to $40,300. So what you major in can have a bigger financial impact than whether or not you attend college.

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.

Article Sources

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  1. Payscale. "Highest Paying Jobs with a Bachelor's Degree." Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Data on Display: Education Pays, 2020." Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.

  3. U.S. Census Bureau. "STEM Majors Earned More Than Other STEM Workers." Accessed Jan. 11, 2021.

  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)." Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.

  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Architectural and Engineering Managers." Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.

  6. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Postsecondary Teachers." Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.