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Does the College Major You Choose Affect Your Career Potential?

Skyrocketing college tuition has two-thirds of students taking on debt to pay for college. As a result, many high school graduates and their parents are questioning whether college is even worth it.

The answer depends on how much you can earn in your chosen field and how much you must borrow for your degree. But if you’re wondering which college majors offer the highest return on investment, or ROI, you may be focused on the wrong question. Statistics show that those who earn college degrees significantly out-earn those who don’t. However, what you study to earn your degree may be less important than what you choose to do with it.

Here’s a closer look at the ways your college major may – or may not – affect your career potential.

Why Your College Major Might Matter

According to a 2017 Gallup poll, a slight majority (51%) of Americans would change at least one decision about their education. Of them, the majority regretted their choice of major. So it’s clear that many Americans believe the choice of college major is important.

And there’s certainly plenty of evidence to back up the notion that sometimes, what you choose to study in college can have a profound effect on the ROI of getting a degree. Statistics show a wide disparity in lifetime earning potential between those with certain majors.

Here are some of the majors with the highest and lowest returns on investment as of 2019. Note that all of these examples are for bachelor’s degrees only.

Majors With the Lowest ROI

Teacher Classroom Students Participation Math Class

These are just some of the more-common majors with the lowest return on investment over a graduate’s lifetime, according to PayScale’s annual College Salary Report.

1. Education

Few who pursue a career in education do so with high earnings in mind. So it should come as no surprise that teachers are some of the lowest-paid professionals. What might be surprising is just how bleak the financial picture looks for most aspiring teachers.

According to PayScale, the average annual salary for an elementary school teacher is $44,741. Depending on where you go to college, the annual cost of getting an education degree could be higher than that. Statistics from The College Board show the annual average total of tuition, fees, room, and board at a private four-year university to be $48,510.

When you compare the cost of a bachelor’s degree in education against a teacher’s lifetime earning potential, the picture isn’t pretty. Assuming graduates work from the ages of 22 to 65, they would have an average lifetime earning potential of $1,923,863. Offset that with the average cost of a four-year degree at a private university – a total of $194,040 – and their net annual salary drops to $40,228.

That’s barely above the national average income for those with only a high school diploma, which was $39,052 in the second quarter of 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means the ROI for an education degree is a scant $50,568 over a teacher’s entire lifetime.

Granted, your salary could increase over 30 years. But increases in teachers’ salaries are typically small and often come only after obtaining further education, such as a master’s degree or Ph.D. So you should weigh any rise in salary against the cost of advanced education.

2. Social Work

Social workers are employed by programs that assess and treat individuals or families with social and emotional issues. Almost all of these positions are not well-paid.

The average annual social worker salary is $45,728. But the cost of a social work degree decreases that salary to $41,215, returning only $93,028 on the investment over a social worker’s lifetime.

3. Wildlife Biology

Wildlife biologists study how animals interact with their environment and how humans impact animals. Although it’s a science degree, not all STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields fit the stereotype of being well-paying. In fact, PayScale lists several science majors at the bottom of its rankings for well-paying majors.

A wildlife biologist can expect to earn an average annual salary of $51,610. When weighed against the cost of education, that figure drops to $47,097, returning only $345,935 on the education investment.

4. Art

A graduate with an art degree could become a fine artist or pursue another position, such as an art director or graphic designer. PayScale puts the average annual salary of art degree-holders at $56,000. After subtracting the cost of a four-year degree at a private university, that number drops down to $51,487, putting the lifetime ROI of an art degree at $534,705.

5. Journalism

A graduate with a journalism degree could pursue a career as a reporter, editor, or in marketing. PayScale reports the average annual salary among journalism degree-holders is $57,000. After accounting for the cost of the degree, that number drops down to $52,487, for a lifetime ROI of $577,705.

Majors With the Highest ROI

Engineer Double Exposure City Landscape

On the other end of the spectrum are these majors, which have some of the highest ROIs, according to PayScale’s report.

1. Engineering

Of the top 25 highest-grossing bachelor’s degrees, nearly all of them fall under the engineering category. The highest-grossing of all bachelor’s degrees is for petroleum engineering, which involves designing and overseeing methods for retrieving oil and natural gas from beneath the earth’s surface.

The average annual salary for a petroleum engineer is $110,000. After subtracting the cost of a bachelor’s degree, that number drops slightly to $105,487 per year, still breaking six figures. The lifetime ROI for this position is $2.86 million, well worth the $194,040 investment for an engineering degree.

2. Mathematics

The third-highest-grossing bachelor’s degree is in actuarial mathematics. An actuary applies mathematical concepts, such as statistical analysis, to assess risk in industries such as insurance and finance.

The starting salary for an actuary is relatively low at $54,700. But by mid-career – which PayScale defines as 10 or more years of experience – that number jumps up to $158,100. The average annual salary for actuaries across all career levels is $87,022. Accounting for a four-year degree brings that number down to $82,509, for a lifetime ROI of $1.87 million.

3. Computer Science

One of the hottest and highest-paying degrees, computer science can lead to numerous positions. Software developers and engineers can earn a significant income programming systems or coordinating computer-related activities for businesses and organizations.

A graduate with a degree in computer science can expect to earn an average annual salary of $87,000. After accounting for the cost of that degree, that number drops to $82,487, for a lifetime ROI of $1.87 million.

4. Business

Business majors take classes such as accounting, marketing, and finance, giving them a wide variety of career options. The pinnacle of achievement in business is CEO status, which has an annual average salary of $159,108.

PayScale lists Business Analysis among its list of top-paying majors and reports that the average annual salary for an IT business analyst is $68,335. And it’s another major whose salary jumps to well over six figures at mid-career. But even at the low end of the salary scale, a business analyst can expect an annual salary of $63,822 after accounting for the cost of a degree, making the return on investment at least $1.07 million.

5. Economics

Economics majors learn skills such as critical thinking, analysis, and mathematics that have real-world applications in business and finance. PayScale reports the average annual salary of economics degree-holders is $65,000, but mid-career estimates are well over six figures at $126,900. Some career options for economics majors pay $155,000 or higher.

After accounting for the education investment, an economics major on the low end of the salary scale can expect a net annual salary of $60,487, for a lifetime ROI of at least $921,724.

Why Your College Major Might Not Matter

Looking at the numbers above, it would seem that your choice of major definitely impacts your overall career success. But that assumes that specific majors always lead directly to particular careers, which isn’t the case.

Aside from specific pre-professional majors such as nursing, college degrees aren’t necessarily a direct pathway to a career. In fact, data analysts from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that only 27% of college graduates work in the same field as their major.

And there are plenty of factors beyond your major that influence your career trajectory and lifetime earning potential. Here are some of the big ones.

1. The Job Market Is Constantly Shifting

According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering elementary school today will be employed in jobs that don’t yet exist. Our economy moves so quickly in response to technological changes that even today’s college students could find themselves employed in jobs they never imagined would exist.

For example, though I’ve always set my sights on writing for a living, I never imagined I’d make that living writing articles for the Web. The Web as we know it today was in its infancy when I was a college student in the 1990s, and blogging was unheard of.

In today’s rapidly shifting world, it makes little sense to lock yourself into a career trajectory based on what you studied in college. As Dr. Douglas A. Webber, an associate professor of economics at Temple University, tells The New York Times, picking a major based on today’s in-demand jobs is risky. These jobs may not even exist in the future thanks to technological innovations such as automation.

2. Modern Jobs Require a Mix of Skills

Jobs in emerging fields tend to cross disciplines. Today’s careers require a multitude of skills. If you pigeonhole yourself in one field of study, you may not develop the skills employers are really looking for. These include soft skills such as adaptability, flexibility, and effective communication.

For example, a 2017 Stanford study that found that students who complete vocational and career-oriented programs may have better short-term employment outcomes, but they lack the necessary skills to keep up with changes in their industry. A second 2017 study, this one by an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard, found that the largest pay and employment growth is in jobs requiring both soft skills and critical thinking skills.

George Anders, author of “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education,” claims that today’s jobs require a mix of skills you can’t learn from one major alone. He and others argue that a broad education is the best way to prepare for an ever-changing job market.

For example, well-meaning parents and advisors may push students into STEM majors hoping it will prepare them for a career in the lucrative tech field. But a 2015 LinkedIn study found that tech companies are hiring liberal arts grads at faster rates than those with computer-science and engineering degrees. That’s likely because tech companies need not only software developers, but also those who can humanize technology for everyone else.

Whatever your major, gaining skills in other fields can boost your career prospects. A study by Burning Glass Technologies, a company that analyzes job trends, found that when liberal arts grads became proficient in certain technical skills, such as data analysis or computer programming, their chances of finding a job after graduation nearly doubled.

3. Employers Don’t Care What You Studied

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, 65% of all jobs will require some type of education beyond high school. However, most employers don’t care what you study to earn a degree. A 2014 Gallup poll found that although 28% of employers ranked a student’s college major as “very important,” a roughly equal amount (22%) ranked it as “not very important.”

What many students don’t realize as they consider their major is how much flexibility exists in the job market. For example, while some believe English majors lack significant career prospects, there are plenty of career paths for English majors beyond teaching or writing. Effective communication skills – such as the ability to listen to and understand other perspectives and explain your perspective to others – are useful plenty of industries. It isn’t unheard of for English majors to become CEOs, for instance.

For many career paths, your choice of major matters far less than your choice of job. I know two college graduates with political science degrees, neither of whom is working in a related field. Instead, one works in the lucrative tech industry, and the other in the even more lucrative personal finance space. In both cases, a college degree got them in the door, but their employers didn’t care what they had chosen to study.

One thing employers do care about, however, is experience. According to the Gallup poll, employers care most about job candidates’ knowledge of the field and their applied skills in that field. That makes internships and other hands-on learning experiences a huge benefit when it comes time for graduates to seek a job.

4. Stats on High-Earning Majors Don’t Account for Career Variances

According to Webber, most parents and students have an idea which majors earn the most, but they don’t understand the vast differences within majors.

For example, top-earning English majors make more over their lifetimes than the bottom quarter of chemical engineers. And even lower-earning English majors fair pretty well compared with business majors – one of the more-lucrative majors, according to PayScale. The New York Times reports that the typical business graduate earns $2.86 million over their lifetime. A middle-of-the-pack English major doesn’t do much worse at $2.76 million.

The Hamilton Project, a comprehensive study of earnings by major, has found similar results, noting that the difference in earning potential between different majors isn’t as great as we believe. In fact, it reports that those who graduate with a philosophy degree, which was ranked as a low-earning major, out-earn computer science majors over the course of their careers.

The Hamilton Project concluded that individuals within the same major choose a wide variety of careers, and with that comes an equally wide variety of earning potentials. That makes it challenging to link specific majors with specific earning outcomes, even though you can make general observations.

Final Word

It’s natural for anyone contemplating taking on serious debt to pay for college to question the return on that investment. But don’t forget that building a successful career isn’t solely about the numbers.

Sometimes, we choose our career paths because they make our lives feel meaningful and purposeful. That said, all the meaning and purpose in the world won’t make up for a crippling debt load you can’t manage. It’s important to strike the right balance between overall personal satisfaction and earning potential.

In general, certain majors tend to have a higher ROI than others, at least on paper. However, the numbers don’t always tell the full story. Except for a handful of pre-professional degrees, what you choose to study in college may not have as big an impact on your career options as we’re led to believe. In the end, what matters most may not be your choice of major, but what you choose to do with it.

Are you a college student or graduate regretting your choice of major? Would you choose a different one if you could do it all over?

Sarah Graves
Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.

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