A college degree adds considerable value to your resume and your future income. In a 2014 report, “Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs?," Federal Reserve Bank of New York analysts studied the economic benefits of bachelor’s and associate’s degrees since 1970 and found that “both degrees earn[ed] a return of about 15% over the past decade." Candidates with a bachelor’s degree enjoyed a 75% wage premium over those with only a high school education.

While any degree is likely to be better than no degree, your choice of a major is also an important determinant of your future income prospects. A groundbreaking 2011 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, "What's It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors," compared the earnings of college graduates in 171 different majors. It found a 300% disparity in income between grads whose majors prepared them to work in the highest-paying jobs and those whose majors led to the lowest-paying fields.

Key Takeaways

  • People with college degrees generally earn substantially more than those without one.
  • Choosing the right college major can also make a big difference in a graduate's earnings—as much as 300%.
  • Graduates with majors that are in demand by employers can earn median starting salaries of $55,000 and up today.

Here, in alphabetical order, are eight majors that currently offer plenty of job opportunities and qualify grads for some of the most attractive starting salaries in the United States. Except as indicated, the income figures come from the National Association of Colleges and Employers' Winter 2019 Salary Survey. Those numbers represent the projected median annual base salaries (not including bonuses, etc.) for Class of 2019 college graduates with bachelor's degrees.

1. Actuarial Science

Actuarial science involves a mix of finance and mathematics, which is an attractive combination right now. Given the ongoing global financial turmoil since the global recession of 2008-09, actuaries are in high demand, particularly for performing financial risk assessments for banks and insurance firms. Skilled actuaries often can secure well-paid jobs soon after getting their bachelor's degree, and the median starting salary is $62,400 at the bachelor’s degree level.

2. Biomedical Engineering

The increasing importance of technology in today's medical sector has significantly improved opportunities for graduates who are knowledgeable in both medical science and technology. Biomedical engineering majors straddle the two fields, and can earn a median starting salary of $66,000. 

3. Civil Engineering

A rapidly growing population and a push for further urbanization are fueling demand for more infrastructure development, particularly in the developing world. A civil engineering degree can lead to job opportunities not just in the U.S. but in a wide range of global locations. Median starting salary is in the $65,000 range. Some more specialized types of engineering command even higher starting salaries, including petroleum engineering (median $75,000), chemical engineering ($70,000), and electrical engineering ($69,000).

New technologies, as well as economic and demographic trends, are driving the demand for recent college graduates in many fields today.

4. Finance

A finance major can open the door to a variety of jobs across multiple sectors, ranging from accounting, sales, and trading to research and high-profile investment banking. The median starting salary is $57,750, but total compensation packages can be significantly higher, with performance-based bonuses, allowances, and perks.

5. Geological Sciences

The geosciences field includes geographical analysis, territorial surveying, and exploration for oil, gas, and valuable minerals. With the spread of technologies like fracking, this sector continues to post a high number of employment opportunities. Median starting salaries are about $65,500.

6. Information Sciences & Systems

Information technology (IT) encompasses a variety of skill sets, including programming, system administration, infrastructure management, and process management. With the rapid growth in cloud computing, cybersecurity and server administration are now essential roles in the IT world. Candidates with IT specialization in emerging technologies and software engineering are in high demand, with a median starting salary estimated at $65,000.

7. Management

A business administration/management degree can land a graduate in any number of well-paying sectors. The median starting salary for generalist managers is about $55,000, with some more specialized majors paying a bit more, such as conservation/natural resources management (median $57,000) and hospitality management (also $57,000).

8. Nursing

With an aging U.S. population, the healthcare sector is expected to grow at a faster than average pace in coming years and provide salaries to match. For example, the median starting salary for a registered nurse with a bachelor's degree is $55,088, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers' Winter 2019 Salary Survey. These degrees typically require courses on health assessment, anatomy, and general nursing. In addition to their degree, job candidates typically need to pass a qualifying exam to obtain a nursing license.