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 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 2021, the report had salary statistics for a total of 827 different majors.
- 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 & computer science, petroleum engineering, and computer science & business professionals.
- Electrical engineering & 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. The potential for growth is also high, with mid-career salaries reaching as high as $159,300.
Electrical engineers and computer scientists are reported separately by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The first group made an average of $103,390 per year in 2020 while the median annual salary for computer scientists in 2020 was $126,830.
2. Physician Assistant Studies
Physician assistants work in teams with surgeons, physicians, and other health care 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 with the potential to earn as much as $118,500 by the time you reach the mid-point of your career. The BLS listed the median annual salary for physician assistants as $115,390 in 2020.
The job growth rate for these professionals is expected to be above average compared to others. The field is expected to grow by 31% between 2020 and 2030, with 12,200 jobs opening up every year by 2030.
3. Petroleum Engineering
Engineering degrees are 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.
Graduating with a bachelor's degree in this discipline can earn you as much as $93,200. This salary jumps to an average of $187,300 in mid-career.
According to the BLS, the average annual salary for a petroleum engineer in 2020 was $137,330. Job growth was expected to be in the range of 8% between 2020 and 2030, which is comparable to growth expected in other fields.
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 as $84,800 with the potential to earn $170,400 by the time you hit your mid-career mark.
The BLS, though, reports these two separately. Operations research analysts made an average annual salary of $86,200 in 2020. Industrial engineers earned an average annual salary of $88,950 in 2020.
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. The mid-career salary jumps up to $147,400 for this profession. This field is expected to see above-average growth between 2020 and 2030, to the tune of 25%. This translates to about 10,200 openings every year until 2030.
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 earn an average starting salary of $83,500, which can jump to as high as $106,000 at mid-career, according to Payscale.
The median annual salary for nuclear engineers, according to the BLS, was $116,140 in 2020. But this field is expected to show a decline of employment by 8% between 2020 and 2030 with only 900 jobs 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 jump to $122,200 in the middle of your career.
These engineers fall into the materials engineering category in the BLS' Occupational Outlook Handbook. According to the agency, materials engineers earned an average of $95,640 in 2020. The rate of job growth in this category is expected to be 8% with roughly 1,800 jobs opening every year between 2020 and 2030.
8. Computer Science and Business
If you're looking for a career where you can use your love for computing technology in a business setting, this may be the field for you. This is a combined major that gives professionals a technical and business background who want to work in an IT setting. Coursework concentrates on commerce and computer science.
The College Salary Report reported the average starting salary for computer science and business graduates as $81,100. The mid-career salary for this career was set at about $94,600.
Jobs in this field fall under the BLS' computer and information research scientists. These professionals earned an average of $126,830 in 2020. The field is expected to grow by 22% by 2030, with as many as 3,200 jobs opening up annually by that year.
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.
Payscale noted an average starting salary of $81,000 while those in the middle of their careers earned an average annual salary of $91,200.
The BLS classifies these professionals under the category of electrical and electronic engineering technologists and technicians. These individuals earned an average of $67,550 per year.
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.
According to Payscale's College Salary report, these professionals had an average starting salary of $81,000 with the potential to reach $126,600 by the mid-point in their careers.
Welding engineers fall under the welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers category in the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook. The average annual salary for this category was $44,190 per year in 2020. Job growth is expected at about 8% between 2020 and 2030.
What College Degree Pays the Most?
The highest-paid college degree is in Petroleum Engineering. The second and third highest-paying college degrees are Operations Research and Industrial Engineering, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
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 not only need engineers to fix problems, but develop products from scratch.
What Degree Do Most CEOs Have?
CEOs are usually not as technically inclined as the directors or employees working for them. A CEO is tasked with controlling the business as a whole and because of the managerial requirements, a CEO will typically have a degree in business administration, economics, business management, or other related field.
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.