How do students know which college degrees deliver the best starting salaries once they graduate? That question is more important than ever. With the average cost of a college degree rising every year, the economic implications of choosing a major have even greater implications for 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.
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 ranked 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. For 2019, the report had salary statistics for a total of 835 different majors. Here are the college degrees that lead to the best starting salaries.
- Degrees in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) are most likely to lead to high-paying jobs today.
- Applied economics and management, and political economy are two of the non-STEM-related disciplines that made the top 10 list.
- Students with the right degree can make as much as $57,000 after they graduate.
Engineering degrees are right at the top of 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.
Petroleum engineers ranked at the very top of Payscale's list. Graduating with a bachelor's degree in this discipline can earn you as much as $94,500. This salary jumps to an average of $176,900 in mid-career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a petroleum engineer in 2019 was $137,720. Job growth was expected to be in the range of 3% between 2018 and 2028—slower than average for all other fields.
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 annual salary for graduates entering the workforce with degrees in these fields was $88,000, according to Payscale. Electrical engineers and computer scientists are reported separately by the BLS. The first group made an average of $101,250 per year while the median annual salary for computer scientists in 2019 was $122,840.
Applied Economics and Management
Business is another category with strong earnings potential right off the bat, especially if you choose the right specialty. People who graduate with a degree in applied economics and management can work in accounting, financial services, health care, technology, consulting, and agricultural business, earning as much as $58,900 with the potential of a mid-career salary of $140,000.
The BLS doesn't specifically have a category in its occupational handbook for applied economics and management. But the agency does have information for the following occupations—all of which fall under the applied economics and management umbrella:
- Accountant: median annual salary of $71,550
- Financial analyst: median annual salary of $85,660 (2018)
- Market research analyst: median annual salary of $63,790
- Advertising, promotions, and marketing managers: median annual salary of $135,900
While some fields require advanced degrees, a bachelor's degree in the right major can lead to a high-paying job right away.
If you don't know what operations researchers do, don't worry. You're probably not alone. People who study operations research use their math and computer skills and must be interested in business, analysis, statistics, and computer programming. Operations research degrees are often part of the engineering departments of most schools.
Payscale reported early salaries for operations researchers as $77,900. Operations research analysts, according to the BLS, made an average annual salary of $137,100 in 2019.
Want to know what studying political economy means? It's basically the intersection of both political science and economics. You'll learn a variety of things including how politics and the economy interact. Students come out of their programs with strong analytical skills and a deeper understanding of issues such as trade, policy, legislation, and economic development.
Early salaries in this field can net individuals an average salary of $57,600. The BLS, on the other hand, distinguishes two different fields for political scientists and economists. The former earned an average of $122,220 per year, while the latter made $105,020 in 2019.
Students who pursue this degree need strong analytical and math skills. They leave with a deeper understanding of how risk and uncertainty factor into the financial world. Once they graduate, they may be able to find work in insurance companies or as independent consultants.
Graduates earned $63,300 in this field, according to the Payscale report. Data from the BLS showed actuaries earned $108,350 per year in 2019. The agency predicted job outlook for the field was expected to grow 20%—faster than all other occupations.
Electrical Power Engineering
Another engineering major that makes the list, electrical power engineering earned early graduates a median salary of $72,400 per year. Undergraduate studies in electrical power engineering give individuals the skills and knowledge necessary to work with power generation, transmission, and utility companies. They're poised to work with companies in either traditional and/or alternative energy companies.
Graduates with a business analysis degree can earn as much as $57,200. The closest occupation in the BLS occupational handbook is a management analyst. The median annual salary in this field in 2019 was $85,260.
Business analysts analyze aspects of different businesses including business strategies, IT solutions, organizational management, information systems, and business requirements. They require critical thinking and problem-solving skills, along with excellent conflict-management and communication skills.
This is the first field that shows up in Payscale's top 10 list in the health care sector. The median early salary reported by the site in 2019 was $79,600. The average salary for pharmacists, according to BLS, was $128,090 per year in 2019. Job growth is expected to remain flat between 2018 and 2028. The pharmaceutical industry is likely to be affected by online and direct-mail sales. Along with pharmacists, graduates in this field have the potential to work in the corporate world in the health care and pharmaceutical industries, and in pharmaceutical research.
Aeronautics and Astronautics
Schools that offer undergraduate degrees in aeronautics and astronautics prepare students for the workforce through the development of engineering design, problem-solving, and project analysis among other skills. Disciplines include propulsion, aerodynamics, aerospace system design, and space applications. Those who graduate in this field can find work as engineers, consultants, researchers, and teachers.
Graduates with an undergraduate degree in this area can expect to earn $73,100 per year early in their careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the average annual salary of an aerospace engineer at $116,500 in 2019.
The Bottom Line
Many students pursue a master’s or another advanced degree after graduation. But with the right bachelor’s degree, you can bring home quite a nice paycheck—and start repaying your student loans while you decide whether an advanced degree makes sense for you. For a really impressive starting salary, backgrounds in engineering are among the most promising options. There are also majors you should avoid if a high salary is a deciding factor in your education and career choices, particularly ones in teaching and the arts.