Though the job market is tough for everyone and we're all tightening our belts, there are some particular fields faring much better than others. Certain college degrees lead to nice starting salaries and hefty mid-career salaries, even in a state of economic slump. (To help you determine a career best suited for your skill set, read The Best Careers For Your Skills.)
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In general, engineering wins the award for best college major with a total of seven spots on the top-ten list of college degrees leading to highest salaries. The first five spots for best college degrees are engineering, with petroleum engineering sitting in the number one position. It is the highest college degree in starting pay, with an average of just over $90,000 salary. And mid-career median pay, on average, ends up around $160,000, far exceeding the other five engineering degrees on the top-ten list.
Other Engineering Degrees
Aerospace, chemical, electrical and nuclear engineering occupy the next four spots on the top-ten list. Potential starting salaries for all four of these college degrees is around $60,000, and the average mid-career salary for these degree-holders is around $100,000. Not far below those numbers are two additional engineering degrees: biomedical and computer. Engineering, in all its specialties, is one of the top five in-demand degrees in the current job market.
Math and Sciences
Unfortunately for those of us who prefer words to numbers, the other three degrees on the top-ten list don't cater to wordsmiths. Applied mathematics, physics and economics are the options, with average starting salaries from $48,000 to $56,000 and mid-career salaries all ending up right around the $100,000 mark. Accounting, though not in the top-ten for earning potential, is the top in-demand degree in the job market, according to a recent study from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The easy, albeit general, conclusion to draw is that the higher-demand, higher-earning college degrees are numbers-oriented, versus those in liberal arts or the "soft" sciences. There are exceptions, however. For those not mathematically inclined, there are some options. (For some ideas on how you can get the job that you want, check out 6 Extreme Ways To Land Your Dream Job.)
Government majors start out with an average salary of around $40,000 - certainly not the highest starting salary among the college degrees. However, mid-career salaries average at around $87,000, topping the mid-career salaries of degrees in computer information systems, geology, chemistry and accounting.
When evaluating college degrees, it's important to look at mid-career salary point as well as the average starting salary. Computer information systems, geology, chemistry and accounting degrees can all get you a starting salary that's higher than the average $41,000 a beginning government worker will earn; so at first glance, government seems like the poorer choice, but it offers that higher mid-career salary which, for most workers, is the amount they'll earn for a much longer time.
Liberal Arts and Business
Besides government, there are a few surprises in the non-numbers oriented college degrees. Several that can lead you to a mid-career salary above $70,000 include film production, marketing, advertising, history, philosophy and fashion design. You might not earn the $100,000 per year that you could with one of those top-ten engineering degrees, but if you're happy in your chosen field then job satisfaction may be enough to compensate for that lost $30,000 potential in earnings.
Two Surprising Degrees to Avoid
A Bachelor of Science in Nursing is another one of those degrees that looks great at first glance, with a nice starting salary: the average starting pay is $52,700, which is in the top 20 of average starting salaries. A great choice, right? But by mid-career, most nurses will cap out at a salary not much higher than what they began with. The average mid-career income is $68,200, less than $16,000 more than the starting pay.
Another surprise is that architecture, a degree commonly perceived as one with high earnings potential, is actually on the low end in both starting ($42,000 a year) and mid-career average salary ($78,000). With the student loans that accompany a five-year bachelor's program, which an architecture degree usually requires, it's a big investment for a not-so-great return. If design and building are the passion you want to pursue, urban planning and construction management are better options as far as salary potential. A degree in urban planning can lead to a mid-career salary of $82,000, and construction management has an average mid-career salary of $87,000.
The Bottom Line
The best college degrees is the one that combines your interest and skill. Hopefully, that coincides with market demand and higher earning potential. Don't rely on assumptions about careers perceived as high-earning; do the research to find out what the job potential truly is, in terms of hiring rates, starting salary and average mid-career earnings. (In most cases your resume is the first thing an employer sees. To ensure you have a great chance of landing that job, read 6 Resume Must-Haves.)
Salary data is provided by PayScale.com. Hourly rates listed are for workers with five-to-eight years of experience and include any bonuses, commissions or profit-sharing.