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 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 degrees in the humanities and social sciences aren't necessarily linked to high salaries, they can be a good foundation for graduate degrees that are more lucrative.

● Starting salaries are important, but it’s also worth looking at the long-term wage growth in a given field to determine the value of a college degree. 

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. A case in point: degrees in petroleum engineering, which prepare you to design systems for extracting underground oil and gas deposits. A bachelor’s in the field will yield an average starting salary of $82,700, on average, and mid-career pay of $183,600, according to the website Payscale.

Other lucrative bachelor's degrees include operations research and industrial engineering, which focuses 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 $166,300. 

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. Grads with a degree in chemical engineering will earn a median income of $71,800 to start, and $126,900 at the mid-point of their career.

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 with a two-year associate’s degree (ASN) make an average salary of $66,000, according to Payscale, while those with a four-year bachelor’s (BSN) bring home an average of $80,000.

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 $92,730. Those who go into nursing management can also do well for themselves. Nursing directors, for example, earn $88,601 a year, on average, according to Payscale data. 

The long-term outlook for nurses is particularly rosy, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicting 15% employment growth between 2016 and 2026, a trend driven in large part by the aging population.

The highest-paying bachelor's degree, according to the website Payscale, is petroleum engineering. On average, graduates earn a starting salary of $82,700 and a mid-career salary of $183,600. 

Computer Science

If you never developed your natural aptitude for technology, you might have made a big mistake. 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 Monster, the average person with a computer science degree will earn entry-level compensation of $66,005. But that’s just the start. IT managers, who design and support computer and network systems, typically bring in $86,010 a year. Senior software engineers do even better financially, making $112,239, on average.

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. 

Among the fields you might have pursued are that of an actuary, which generates an average annual salary of $97,070, according to Monster, and a statistician, which earns $80,110 per year, on average. Actuaries have to pass a ladder of certifying exams, both during and after college, to reach the highest levels of their field. And being a statistician generally requires at least a master’s degree.

Another option: becoming a financial analyst, who’s responsible for helping companies and financial institutions choose high-performing investments. An FA's mid-career salary is an enviable $80,310, on average.

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 $71,400 at the start and $133,300 by mid-career, according to Payscale.

Of course, a bachelor degree in biology or a related science can also be a great springboard for some high-demand careers in healthcare. Those who go on to medical school will earn an average salary of $237,000 if they become primary care doctors and $341,000 if they specialize, according to a 2019 Medscape survey. They may also choose to become a physician assistant, which earns a median salary of $93,681, and only requires a master’s degree.

Business

While top leadership positions in business often require an MBA, even an undergraduate degree can be lucrative if you select the right one. According to Payscale, majors in public accounting can do particularly well, earning average starting salaries of $60,700 and mid-career salaries of $135,000.

Bachelor's degrees in business analysis, a hybrid of business management and statistics, can also be quite rewarding. On average, individuals with this degree will take home $53,400 in the beginning and $129,800 by the midpoint of their career.

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 a median annual salary of $115,820, according to Monster.

Another potentially high-paying field within the social science umbrella: economics. Professionals who are capable of analyzing complex economic data earn $104,340 a year on average, 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; 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 post-bacc opportunities to switch fields—though, alas, that often entails 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.