With the average cost of a college degree rising every year, the economic implications of choosing a major have an even greater impact on the future. Even if getting a good financial return on your college investment isn’t the only factor in your choice of programs, it certainly should be part of the equation.
So how do students know which college degrees deliver the best salaries after graduation? We compiled a list of the bachelor’s degrees that lead to the highest starting salaries using data from Payscale’s College Salary Report, which ranks the early career salaries every year including those who just started in their fields. Those surveyed had anywhere from zero to five years of experience. The 2021-2022 report had salary statistics for a total of 827 different majors.
What follows are the top 10 average starting salaries for workers with a bachelor’s degree.
- Knowing the college degrees that deliver the best salaries after graduation can help set you on the right path toward a great financial future.
- STEM-related fields dominate the top 10 list of highest starting salaries, including electrical engineering and computer science, petroleum engineering, and computer science and business professionals.
- Electrical engineering and computer science have the highest starting salaries.
- One health care field comes in second place: physician assistant studies.
- Welding engineers round out the list.
1. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
As businesses and other organizations become more dependent on technology to deliver efficiencies, they need qualified candidates who can help maintain and improve their electrical equipment and computer systems.
The average starting salary for graduates who enter the workforce with degrees in these fields was $108,500, according to Payscale, putting it in the number one spot. The potential for growth is also good, with mid-career salaries reaching as high as $159,300, earning the number three slot.
Electrical engineers and computer scientists are reported separately by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In 2021 the first group made a median annual salary of $101,780, while the median for computer scientists was $131,490.
2. Physician Assistant Studies
Physician assistants work in teams with surgeons, physicians, and other healthcare practitioners in the medical field. You can expect to work in various settings, including hospitals, doctors’ offices, and clinics. You will need a license granted by your state in order to begin working.
Payscale reported an average starting salary of $95,900, enough to grab the number two listing. However, mid-career earnings are only $118,500, dropping the field to number 76 on the list. The BLS listed the median annual salary for physician assistants as $121,530 in 2021.
The job growth rate for these professionals is expected to be above average compared with others. The field is expected to grow by 28% between 2021 and 2031 (average growth rate for all occupations is just 5%), with 12,700 jobs opening up every year.
3. Petroleum Engineering
Engineering degrees of different sorts dominate the list when it comes to initial compensation. Petroleum engineers work in the oil and gas industry. These professionals research, design, and develop different ways to extract fossil fuels from the Earth.
Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in this discipline can earn you as much as $93,200, good enough for third place. Happily, this jumps to an average of $187,300 in mid-career, putting petroleum engineers in first place by a nearly $17,000 margin.
According to the BLS, the median annual salary for a petroleum engineer in 2021 was $130,850. Job growth was expected to be in the range of 8% between 2021 and 2031, about 1,700 jobs per year.
4. Operations Research and Industrial Engineering
This major combines two disciplines into one. People who study operations research use their math and computer skills and must be interested in business, analysis, statistics, and computer programming. Industrial engineers help make things run more smoothly and safely while making processes more efficient and effective.
Payscale reported early salaries for this field at $84,800, occupying fourth place. However, the potential to earn $170,400 by the time you hit your mid-career mark bumps it up to second place.
The BLS reports these two categories separately. Operations research analysts made a median annual salary of $82,360 in 2021. Industrial engineers earned a median annual salary of $95,300 in 2021. Job growth for the former is put at 23% from 2021 to 2031, about 10,300 openings annually. The latter has a predicted growth rate of just 10%, but that translates to 22,400 openings per year.
5. Operations Research
Operations researchers show up on Payscale’s list of highest paying starting salaries for a second time—this time as its own major. Operations research degrees are often part of the engineering departments of most schools.
Payscale reported early salaries for operations researchers as $83,500, making it fifth in the list. Mid-career salaries jump up to $147,400, making the profession slip down one notch to sixth place.
While some fields require advanced degrees, a bachelor’s degree in the right major can lead to a high-paying job right away.
6. Nuclear Engineering Technology
Professionals in this field are responsible for the research and development (R&D) of tools and processes required for nuclear energy. Nuclear engineers work in teams and may work with new or existing systems. Others work to decommission systems that need to be replaced. Areas of specialty in this field include those who deal with processes, reactors, health and safety, and quality control.
Nuclear engineers come in sixth for average starting salary, earning $83,500. However, they drop precipitously to 158th place in mid-career, taking in just $106,000, according to Payscale.
The median annual salary for nuclear engineers, according to the BLS, was $120,380 in 2021. However, the field is expected to show a decline of employment by 11% between 2021 and 2031, with only 700 jobs expected to open up each year during that 10-year period.
7. Metallurgical Engineering
Metals can be transformed into just about anything you can imagine, from microchips and cars to surgical instruments and appliances. Metallurgical engineers study metals and how they can be safely converted for use by humans.
If you’re entering the metallurgical engineering field, you can expect to start earning an average of $81,800 per year. Your salary could increase to $122,200 in the middle of your career, sliding from seventh to 58th place on the list.
These engineers fall into the materials engineering category in the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. According to the agency, materials engineers earned an average of $98,300 in 2021. The rate of job growth in this category is expected to be 6%, with roughly 1,700 jobs opening every year between 2021 and 2031.
8. Computer Science and Business
If you’re looking for a career that allows you to use your love for computing technology in a business setting, this may be the field for you. Computer science and business is a combined major for those who want to work in an IT setting. It gives professionals both a technical and business background. Coursework concentrates on commerce and computer science.
The College Salary Report lists the average starting salary for computer science and business graduates in eighth place at $81,100. However, the mid-career salary for this career doesn’t provide a lot of growth, dropping to 279th place at $94,600.
Jobs in this field fall under the BLS’s computer and information research scientists. These professionals earned an average of $131,490 in 2021. The field is expected to grow by 21% by 2031, with as many as 3,300 jobs opening up annually.
9. Electronic Systems Technology
Electronic systems technologists work with computers, robots, and medical machinery, as well as robots and circuit boards. These individuals, whose skills are in high demand, design and produce this type of technology.
The degree starts well, in ninth place, with an average starting salary of $81,000. Alas, those in the middle of their careers can only expect to earn an average $91,200, sliding far down to 331st on the list.
The BLS classifies these professionals under the category of electrical and electronic engineering technologists and technicians. These individuals earn an average of $63,640 per year. Job growth between 2021 and 2031 is predicted to be stagnant at 0%.
10. Welding Engineering
Welding engineers have a background in a variety of scientific disciplines, including physics, metallurgy and materials, engineering, and welding. They play a pivotal part in the construction of buildings, vehicles, and other structures that require welding.
These professionals are in 10th place, with an average starting salary of $81,000. They have the potential to reach $126,600 by the mid-point in their careers, which puts them in the 37th spot.
Welding engineers fall under the welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers category in the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook. The median annual salary for this category was $47,010 in 2021. Job growth is expected to be about 2% between 2021 and 2031, adding about 47,600 jobs each year during that time period, most of which will replace workers who retire or transition to other work.
What College Degree Pays the Most in the Long Run?
The highest-paid college degree in mid-career is in petroleum engineering. Operations research and industrial engineering is the second-highest, while electrical engineering and computer science comes in third.
What Major Makes the Most Millionaires?
Again, the college major that mints the most millionaires is engineering. There are many types of engineering, and the company is highly in demand, especially as new tech emerges and companies need engineers not only to fix problems but also develop products from scratch.
What Degree Do Most CEOs Have?
A CEO is tasked with controlling a business as a whole, and because of the managerial requirements, a CEO will typically have a degree in business administration, economics, or business management, or possibly some other related field.
The Bottom Line
Many students pursue a master’s or other advanced degree after graduation. Nevertheless, the right bachelor’s degree can provide quite a nice paycheck, allowing you to start repaying your student loans while deciding whether an advanced degree makes sense for you. For a really impressive starting salary, backgrounds in engineering are among the most promising options.
However, starting salary isn’t everything, and many degrees that bring high initial earnings drop considerably down the list for mid-career salaries. There are also majors you should avoid if a high salary is a deciding factor in your education and career choices. In particular, those who choose to go into teaching, social work, or the arts are more likely to receive lower salaries. Still, choosing a college major and deciding what field of work to go in is a personal choice that each person should make on their own.