What is the college degree that you should have gotten? Maybe it's the one you did get. But sometimes when people are getting out of college—and they and their friends start hitting the job market—they realize that the opportunities open to grads with their particular major are not necessarily in the career fields they'd like to go after. Or they realize that the fields they thought they wanted to pursue actually pay a pittance of what new grads with different majors are being offered.

The price of a college education these days is enough to make even the most well-heeled students gulp. So it’s worth thinking of your degree as an investment in your future, not just the next hurdle you have to get over in order to land that first job. 

The most valuable degrees are the ones that not only provide an immediate payoff after college but also afford those who pursue them long-term career satisfaction and the possibility of earnings growth. Here are some degrees that can produce those kinds of results—and that anyone still in school may want to consider.

Key Takeaways

  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees dominate the list of collegiate programs that lead to top-paying careers.
  • While some bachelor's degrees in the humanities and social sciences don't typically offer high salaries, they can provide a foundation for a graduate degree and a more lucrative career.
  • The value of a college degree is not only measured by the starting salary but also the potential for long-term wage growth.

Engineering

If you’re a born problem-solver, engineering might be the ideal degree. Several specialties rank near the top of the list when it comes to high-earning college programs. For example, degrees in petroleum engineering prepare you to design systems for extracting underground oil and gas deposits. A bachelor’s in the field will yield a median salary of $100,968, and may earn you as much as $201,000, with bonuses and profit sharing according to the website Payscale.

Other lucrative bachelor's degrees include operations research and industrial engineering, which focus on the efficient management of human capital and equipment within a business. Even those with just an undergraduate degree generate an average mid-career salary of $93,000.

Other top-paying degrees include systems engineering—a program that focuses on the management of electrical, mechanical, and other complex systems—as well as marine engineering and aeronautical engineering. In 2020, grads with a degree in chemical engineering earned a median income of $108,540, or $52.18 per hour.

Nursing

Some of the highest-paying jobs in the country are in the healthcare sector. But you don’t need to become a doctor to bring home a very respectable paycheck. A degree in nursing, for example, provides a competitive salary with a lot less schooling. Registered nurses start out with an average salary of $66,420, according to Payscale. However, nurses with a Bachelor's degree earned an average salary of $75,300 in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

While wage growth is a little more tepid than in some fields, there are plenty of opportunities to cash in later in your career. Those who go on to get their master’s degree, for example, can become nurse practitioners, who earn an average salary of $117,670. Those who go into nursing management can also do well for themselves. Nursing directors, for example, earn $88,2128 a year, on average, according to Payscale.

The long-term outlook for nurses is particularly rosy, with the BLS predicting 10% employment growth between 2019 and 2029, while jobs for nurse practitioners are expected to grow by 45%. The trend is driven in large part by the aging population.

Computer Science

There are many different occupations within the computer and information technology field. Employers are willing to pay big bucks for people who know how to program software, manage computer systems, and manipulate data. 

According to the job-search site Indeed, the average person with a computer science degree earns about $104,000, although there is a large range of what someone with this degree might make, based on location and job title.

Below are the average salaries for various IT positions in 2019, according to the BLS.

Computer and Information Technology Salaries
Job Title Education  Avg. Salary
Computer Information Research Master's degree $126,830
Software Developers Bachelor's degree $110,140
Computer Programmers Bachelor's degree $89,190
Web Developers Associate's degree $77,200
Computer Support Specialists none $55,510
Average IT Salaries in 2019 according to BLS.gov.

Math 

Private companies and governments have massive amounts of data at their disposal, which means they’re in need of professionals who can make sense of it all. It’s one of the reasons why a degree in math is the gateway to a broad array of rewarding jobs. 

For example, an actuary assesses financial risks for investment and insurance companies. Actuaries earned a salary of $111,030 in 2020, according to the BLS. Actuaries have to pass a ladder of certifying exams, both during and after college, to reach the highest levels of their field. 

A statistician usually requires at least a master’s degree and paid an average salary in 2020 of $93,290 per year. Both actuaries and statisticians have great employment growth prospects with a 27% expected growth rate for actuaries and a 35% growth rate for statisticians between 2019 and 2029.

Science

Science-related jobs represent some of the most well-compensated positions in the workforce. A bachelor’s degree in aeronautics or astronautics, for instance, will yield an average wage of $84,000 according to Payscale.

Of course, a bachelor's degree in biology or a related science can also be a great springboard for some high-demand careers in healthcare. A microbiologist, for example, with a bachelor's degree earned an average of $84,400 in 2020, according to the BLS.

Those who go on to medical school will earn an average salary of $214,370 if they become primary care doctors who provide preventative care for patients and refer to specialists when needed. For those who specialize, the salary can vary. A dentist earned in 2020 an average salary of $164,010 while optometrists, who treat eye conditions, earned $118,050 according to the BLS.

Chiropractors earned $70,720 in 2020, while a physician assistant earns an average salary of $115,390 and only requires a master’s degree.

The salaries for other science and medical-related jobs, some of which don't need a college degree, are listed below according to 2020 data from the BLS.

Science and Medical Salaries
Job Title Degree or Training Avg. Salary
Clinical Lab Technician Bachelor's degree $54,180
Dental Hygienists Associate's degree $77,090
Medical Assistant Training $35,850
Nutritionist Bachelor's degree $63,090
Pharmacist B.S. + PharmD $128,710
Physical Therapist Asst. Certification Training $49,970
Average salaries for the Healthcare sector as of 2019 according to BLS.gov.

Business

While top leadership positions in business often require an MBA, even an undergraduate degree can be lucrative if you select the right one. There are several majors that are typically included within the business school of most universities, including accounting, finance, and business administration or management.

Accounting

According to Payscale, majors in public accounting can do particularly well, earning average starting salaries of approximately $68,000. In 2020, the average salary for an accountant with a bachelor's degree was $73,560 according to the BLS. However, public accountants that prepare financial statements for individuals and corporations while employed at an accounting firm would be required to become a certified public accountant CPA, which is a four-part test on various accounting theories, rules, practices, and terms.

Finance

Finance majors have several choices to specialize in that includes becoming a financial analyst. An FA is responsible for helping companies, and financial institutions choose high-performing investments. An FA's average salary for those with a bachelor's degree is $83,660. However, many FAs must be certified as a chartered financial analyst (CFA) before they can offer investment advice.

A financial manager can work in insurance, securities, and investments as well as manage the accounting process for a corporation. According to the BLS, the average salary was $134,180 in 2020 for finance managers. Insurance underwriters earn an average of $71,790, while loan officers earn $63,960, which could have either an accounting or finance degree.

Personal financial advisors typically have a bachelor's degree and can earn $89,330 but might need to obtain certification as well, such as a certified financial planner (CFP) designations.

Business Administration or Management

Bachelor's degrees in business analysis, a hybrid of business management and statistics, can also be quite rewarding. As of August 2021, individuals with this degree on average will take home $51,444.

Humanities and Social Sciences

You may not associate degrees in English, philosophy, or sociology with big-money jobs after college, but the critical thinking and communication skills they help develop can be valuable down the road. These degrees are sought-after in MBA and other graduate programs, where those qualities can lead to more insightful, outside-the-box perspectives.

One often-overlooked option is a degree in political science. It’s beneficial if you plan on working in the public sector, of course, but it’s also a powerful stepping-stone into other fields, such as finance or the law—and attorneys make an annual salary of $126,930, according to the BLS.

Another potentially high-paying field within the social science umbrella: economics. Professionals who are capable of analyzing complex economic data earn a median of $108,350 a year, according to BLS. However, many jobs in this discipline require a master’s degree or higher. 

The Bottom Line

The best college degree is the one that combines your interests and skills and coincides with market demand and earnings potential. Don’t rely on assumptions about careers perceived as high-paying. Instead, it's important to do the research to find out what specific fields offer in terms of hiring rates, starting salary, and average mid-career earnings.

In most cases, your resume is the first thing an employer sees. Make sure yours is the best it can be to ensure you have the best chance of landing a good job. Be sure yours has the keywords and format that will get you past the computer screening that many employers use.

And if this process and your first years of working leave you wishing you could rewrite history, you can. There are plenty of opportunities to switch fields, but it may entail more education and more education debt. At least you should get credit for many of the courses you took in your first round of college.