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25 Jobs That Aren’t Worth the Cost of the College Degree

For many college-bound students, graduating with a degree equates with getting a high-paying job. In fact, a 2015 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) found that college graduates make an average of $1 million more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma.

Even more, a minimum of an associate’s degree appears necessary for most jobs. The CEW predicts 70% of jobs will require education beyond high school by 2027. But not all jobs return on their education investment — especially since the cost of college has risen eight times faster than wages, according to an analysis from Forbes.

While it’s generally true that a college degree broadens career opportunities and increases earning potential, the high cost of college means it makes sense to carefully consider your career choices. There are some degree-requiring careers that don’t pay anywhere near a $1 million return, and many more will earn you less than the average income of someone with only a high school diploma — making the investment of a college education not worth it.

Jobs That Aren’t Worth the Cost of the Degree

While it’s typically true that a college degree gives one an advantage in the workforce, graduates with bachelor’s degrees must start their careers making an average salary of around $50,000 annually just to break even with the earning potential of someone with only a high school diploma — which means you’d need to earn significantly more for that $1 million lifetime return. How can that be?

First, those who go on to complete higher education and advanced degrees like master’s, doctoral, or professional degrees typically spend years out of the workforce. Thus, they’re losing the income of those years.

Second, the expense of college has risen so disproportionately with wages that the vast majority of students must borrow student loans to fund their education. According to 2016 data from the Institute for College Access & Success, more than two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients take out student loans to fund their education.

Thus, graduates of higher education start off in a financial hole — years behind in income and tens of thousands of dollars in debt. So, to make their investment pay off, they have to start at a higher salary.

Fortunately, their degrees put them in a good position to do that. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) Summer 2021 Salary Survey, current graduates can expect to make an average starting salary of $55,260.

But this is an average, and not all jobs that require college degrees start there. In general, careers that don’t return well on their education investment are those where your earning potential won’t start in this range and may likely never reach it. And the higher your level of education, the greater your salary needs to be to break even.

Methodology

More specifically, to determine which jobs have a poor return on investment (ROI), we started with 2018-19 data, the most recent available from the National Center for Education Statistics on the average cost of attendance at public or private undergraduate or graduate institutions.

We then established the true cost of an education by factoring in the average amount of student loans borrowed, according to a statistical analysis by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research with Saving for College. And we included the total cost of the loans, paid back over 16 years — the average length of time borrowers take to repay their loans, using the current 2021-22 federal interest rates.

We then used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to establish the lowest paying jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree. Comparing the lifetime earnings of these jobs plus the true cost of the required education with the lifetime earnings of the average worker with only a high school diploma, as established by ZipRecruiter, with each worker potentially retiring at age 65, gave us our final ROI figures.

Our final list ranks the jobs according to their return on investment.

1. Survey Researcher

  • Major: Marketing or survey research, statistics, or sociology
  • Entry Level of Education: Master’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $59,870
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: $292,330
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: $211,601

Survey researchers design and conduct surveys for different research interests, which could include anything from politics and culture to health, social sciences, public opinion, or marketing. They conduct surveys in a variety of formats, such as interviews, questionnaires, or focus groups (in-person, small groups led by a facilitator).

Researchers also collect and analyze the data. They collect data via the Internet, mail, telephone, or in-person interviews.

Because designing, conducting, and analyzing survey research requires advanced statistical knowledge, this job requires an advanced degree, making it more expensive to enter than a bachelor’s degree-level career. However, the pay doesn’t account for the pricer education, thus making the return on investment low.


2. Career Counselor

  • Major: Psychology
  • Entry Level of Education: Master’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $58,120
  • ROI of Attending a Public University: $220,580
  • ROI of Attending a Private University: $139,851

Career counselors typically work in schools, usually colleges and universities, assisting students in developing necessary skills for finding jobs after graduation. They may also help students discover careers or choose educational programs that help lead to a career. They often organize career fairs and other events that bring job recruiters to campus or students into the field to explore different jobs.

Although career counselors are experts in helping others find potentially lucrative jobs, they aren’t well-paid themselves. Because this career requires a master’s degree, the education cost is expensive without much payoff.


3. Public Defender

  • Major: Law
  • Entry Level of Education: Juris Doctor (J.D.)
  • Median Annual Salary: $61,345
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: $206,040
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: $86,240

Many lawyers can make high six-figure incomes, especially those working in corporate law. But others don’t. Lawyers interested in social justice causes like public defense will have a hard time paying off their law degree.

That’s especially the case with the average law school debt hovering around $145,500 according to 2015-16 data, the most recent available from the National Center for Education Statistics. That total includes law school loans and loans taken out for a lawyer’s undergraduate degree.

Fortunately, public defenders have the option for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). This allows you to make a lower monthly student loan payment based on your income under an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan for 10 years. Then, after making 120 monthly payments while working full-time for your public service job, you become eligible to have the remainder of your balance forgiven.

Using the loan simulator at Federal Student Aid, that means you could have a starting monthly payment of only $350 instead of the $867 you’d have to pay on the standard 10-year repayment plan, assuming an average debt of $113,300 at the time of graduation. Better yet, you’ll only repay a total of $55,574 and your remaining balance of $112,238 will be forgiven.

PSLF can make being a public defender ultimately worth it, but you still have to account for making 10 years of payments before you’re eligible for forgiveness. Thus, you’d still need a starting annual salary of $56,000 to $60,000 just to break even with the average high school graduate.


4. Graphic Designer

  • Major: Graphic design
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $53,380
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: $175,225
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: $122,034

Graphic designers create visual elements to communicate with consumers. Typically they work via computer, although some draw by hand. Visuals can include any pictorial element of a brochure, web page, magazine, or other printed page. Graphic artists often work side-by-side with writers and editors to determine how to transform text and data into graphics to make them more accessible.

This is one degree where you might see some positive ROI if you’re careful with your school choice and keep your student loan debt to a minimum. However, if you stick to the middle of the pack with your earnings, you’ll be right on par with the earnings of an average high school graduate.


5. Interpreter or Translator

  • Major: Any, although typically a foreign language or American Sign Language (ASL)
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $52,330
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: $130,075
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: $76,884

Translators convert written language into another language. Interpreters translate the spoken word into another language, including sign language. Although some do both, typically they’re two different professions.

Further, because the goal of interpreters and translators is to communicate the original spoken or written word into the new language without losing any meaning of the original, they often specialize in a particular field or industry. However, many have more than one area of specialization.

Although interpreters and translators need at least a bachelor’s degree, the most important requirement is that they be fluent in at least two languages — typically English and one other language. So it won’t matter if you major in a specific language, as long as you’re fluent.


6. Minister or Pastor

  • Major: Religious studies or theology
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $51,940
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: $113,305
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: $60,114

Ministers and pastors are ordained members of the Christian clergy. Their specific duties vary widely by denomination. In general, they’re assigned to a particular parish, church, or community, and lead worship services as well as provide moral, spiritual, and personal religious guidance to their parishioners.

Typically, ministers are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree, but many go on to get advanced degrees like master’s and doctoral degrees. Thus, the return on investment can be even lower than what’s calculated here — unless one serves a megachurch, where the income can be higher than the norm.

However, this is generally a career path no one enters for the income, but rather the feeling of being called to serve.


7. Meeting, Convention, or Event Planner

  • Major: Hospitality
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $51,560
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: $96,965
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: $43,774

Meeting and event planners organize social and professional events like weddings, business conventions, and education conferences. They’re involved in coordinating all the details of an event, including searching for the meeting site, coordinating on-site services like catering, registering guests, and organizing equipment. They also plan entertainment, activities, and speakers.

Unless you’re planning upper crust events like celebrity weddings, however, your salary adjusted for the cost of your education will barely earn you more than the average income of someone with only a high school diploma.


8. Exercise Physiologist

  • Major: Exercise physiology, exercise science, or kinesiology
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $50,280
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: $41,925
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $11,266

Exercise physiologists, not to be confused with athletic trainers, develop fitness programs to help sick or injured patients get healthy. Many of their patients suffer from chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease or pulmonary disease. Exercise physiologists help patients improve cardiovascular function, lung capacity, and other key health indicators. Some work closely with primary care physicians, who may refer their patients to an exercise physiologist.

Although many health professional fields are highly lucrative, especially those requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher, this isn’t one of them.


9. Athletic Trainer

  • Major: Athletic training
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $49,860
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: $23,865
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $29,326

Athletic trainers work with athletes of all ages and skills levels, from young children to pro football players. They specialize in preventing, diagnosing, and treating muscle and bone injuries, and are usually one of the first health care professionals on the scene when an injury occurs on the field.

They typically work directly with licensed physicians to implement specific treatment regimens. And they also work with the directors of athletic programs to ensure programs are compliant with state and federal safety regulations.

Despite their many duties, from administrative tasks to medical ones, athletic trainers aren’t well compensated for their hard work. This is a career where you’ll need to love sports more than a high salary.


10. Reporter or Journalist

  • Major: Journalism or broadcast journalism
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $49,300
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $215
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $53,406

Reporters and correspondents, often called journalists, inform the public about current events and the news. They typically work for one media organization like a newspaper, television station, radio station, or website, although many are freelancers. Today’s journalists often work in multimedia formats, recording video, and gathering audio or graphics, as well as maintaining a social media presence in addition to writing stories.

This is a job where you’ll work hard for the low pay. Reporters and journalists often keep long hours, including nights and weekends, in order to be on the scene for the news. Yet many won’t earn enough to make their college degrees worth it.


11. Social Science Research Assistant

  • Major: Psychology or sociology
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $49,210
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $4,085
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $57,276

Most social science research assistants work in the scientific research and development industry or in colleges and universities. They manage data and prepare research findings for publication.

Although many scientific research jobs are lucrative, this one definitely isn’t. A career as a social science research assistant has a negative return on investment — you’ll make less than the average income of someone with only a high school diploma. Thus, it’s not worth the cost of the degree.


12. Music Director or Conductor

  • Major: Music theory, music composition, or conducting
  • Entry Level of Education: Master’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $52,250
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $20,090
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $100,819

Music directors, also called conductors, lead orchestras, choirs, and other musical groups during performances, including orchestras that accompany dance, opera, and theater productions. They balance the timing, rhythm, melody, and volume, ensuring musicians play with one coherent sound.

Education requirements vary, but most employers prefer candidates who have a master’s degree. This requirement is a primary factor that drives down the return on investment of the job.


13. Museum Worker (Researcher, Archivist, or Curator)

  • Major: Art, history, archeology
  • Entry Level of Education: Master’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $52,140
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $24,600
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $105,329

A museum researcher plans, organizes, and conducts research for use in projects and exhibitions by their institution. Research could be in any field, depending on one’s area of speciality — science, culture, history, or art.

Archivists preserve historically important documents. Many specialize in a specific historical era so they can better understand the records of that period. They may also work with researchers on topics relevant to their collections and coordinate public programs, such as tours and lectures.

Curators are responsible for the acquisition, storage, and exhibition of collections. They may also research and authenticate items in a collection. At large institutions, curators specialize in particular fields such as botany, art, or history. Additionally, they perform administrative tasks to help manage their museum, and may represent their museum in the media or at public events.

Whether you work as a researcher, archivist, or curator, none of these museum jobs returns on the investment of a master’s degree.


14. Clinical Social Worker

  • Major: Social Work
  • Entry Level of Education: Master’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $51,760
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $40,180
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $120,909

Social workers help people solve or cope with everyday problems, such as helping families find housing or support services or assisting with adoptions. They may work in schools to develop strategies for academic or behavior management. And many work in health care, helping patients cope with difficult diagnoses or assisting with the treatment of substance abuse.

While it’s possible to start a career in social work with only a bachelor’s degree, clinical social workers — those licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders — are required to have master’s degrees. They must also obtain a license in the state where they practice.

These extra requirements make entry into this career field expensive without adequate pay to make it worth it. And the actual return on investment is likely worse than what’s calculated here. According to a 2020 report from the Center for American Progress, a master’s in social work has a median debt of $115,000 and average first-year earnings of $49,400. That’s much higher debt and slightly lower income than the averages used in our computations.


15. Marriage and Family Therapist

  • Major: Psychology
  • Entry Level of Education: Master’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $51,340
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $57,400
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $138,129

Marriage and family therapists help people manage relationships with their family and spouse by meeting with them in private therapy sessions. They bring a family-centered approach to their practice, even when meeting with individuals, by focusing on how family roles affect clients’ mental health, stress, and self-esteem.

Because marriage and family therapists work in private practice, they must market themselves to prospective clients. Thus, your income depends in part on your ability to sell your services.


16. Recreational Therapist

  • Major: Recreational therapy
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $47,710
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $68,585
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $121,776

Recreational therapists use recreational activities, such as arts and crafts, drama, music, games, sports, swimming, and community outings, to improve a patient’s physical or emotional well-being. They plan, direct, and coordinate treatment programs to help those with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. They also commonly work with older adults in senior living facilities and nursing homes.

This is another service career where the reward comes from the good of helping others but, unfortunately, not from the income.


17. Substance Abuse Counselor

  • Major: Psychology or social work
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $47,660
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $70,735
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $123,926

Substance abuse counselors advise people with alcoholism or drug addiction. They may also work with those who have eating disorders or other addictions. They provide treatment and support to help patients recover from addiction, which can include working with individuals one-on-one or in a group setting.

Although it’s possible to become a substance abuse counselor with only a bachelor’s degree, providing one-on-one mental health counseling typically requires a master’s degree. However, you may be able to command a higher income with a master’s, according to Salary.com.


18. Community and Social Service Specialist

  • Major: Psychology or social work
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $46,770
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $109,005
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $162,196

Community and social service specialists work in community outreach programs, such as food, housing, and other relief programs. Many are employed by local and state governments. Others work for individual and family service providers, schools, social advocacy organizations, and nonprofits.

But although this career is noble and may bring much life satisfaction, it won’t bring a lot of financial reward. Even before accounting for the cost of a degree, the lost time alone of four years of college already puts you behind someone entering the workforce with only a high school diploma.


19. Biological Technician

  • Major: Biology
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $46,340
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $127,495
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $180,686

Sometimes referred to as laboratory assistants, biological technicians help medical scientists and biologists conduct experiments and perform tests. Usually they work in labs using traditional laboratory instruments, specialized computer software, and advanced robotics to collect and analyze samples and data. But they may also work in the field, collecting samples, especially if they assist zoologists and wildlife biologists.

Although many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers can be highly lucrative, this isn’t one of them. You won’t earn a return on your degree as a lab assistant. However, if you can leverage your experience to climb the ladder into a more senior position, you’ll likely do better. Be aware, in this field that typically requires going back to school for a Ph.D. or at least a master’s degree.


20. Tutor

  • Major: Any
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $40,590
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $374,745
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $427,936

Tutors work with students one-on-one. They might work in a school, for an education organization, or run their own business out of their home. You need a degree in some area of speciality so you can teach students that discipline, but otherwise students can use help with almost anything — from reading, writing, and math to music, sports, and even art.

But, even though you’ll be working with students — the same as any teacher — you won’t earn on average what a classroom teacher does.


21. Proofreader or Copy Marker

  • Major: English or journalism
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $37,550
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $505,465
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $558,656

Proofreaders check copy to make sure it’s free of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors. Copy includes any kind of text — from articles, essays, and books to technical writing like manuals. They also verify that facts are accurate and correctly cited.

Although sometimes proofreading jobs can overlap with editing work, such as in fields like copyediting, proofreading is different from editing, which also involves planning, reviewing, and revising content and typically comes with higher pay. So if you want to get a better return on your English or journalism degree, consider moving up to editor.


22. Broadcast Announcer

  • Major: Journalism, broadcasting, or communications
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $36,770
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $539,005
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $592,196

Broadcast announcers, including disc jockeys, primarily work in radio broadcasting, but many are self-employed, including podcasters. Announcers typically present music, news, or sports and may do interviews or take calls from listeners. They often provide commentary on current events and manage the creative content of their programs.

You may have dreams of radio or talk show stardom, but announcers as a category earn less than the average worker with only a high school diploma. Many in this category work part-time, though, which may have an effect on the median salary.


23. Coach or Scout

  • Major: Physical education, physiology, sports science
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s Degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $36,330
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $557,925
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $611,116

​​Coaches help athletes develop their skills in their chosen sport. They hold training and practice sessions, determine game strategies, and call plays during competitions. Scouts evaluate new players for college, amateur, and professional sports teams. Many coaches also scout potential players for their programs.

Most high school coaches are teachers who supplement their incomes by coaching part time. But if you’re a full-time professional coach, this is another career where you’ll need to love sports more than earning a high income, as this job doesn’t typically return on its education investment.


24. Legislator

  • Major: Political science, government, economics, history, law, public administration
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $33,200
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $692,515
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $745,706

Legislators are members of the legislative branch of government. They develop, introduce or enact laws at the local, state, or national level by drafting bills, proposing them, and holding votes. The public elects legislators to work in the various levels of government. Although there are technically no specific education requirements, most candidates need at least a bachelor’s degree to be competitive in elections.

Successful legislators have all kinds of backgrounds, but many have degrees in political science, history, or government. Graduate degrees in law, business, public administration, and public financial management are also common.

Most legislators on the local level earn less than $20,000 per year, which is what drives down this median annual salary. But local legislators also typically work a full-time job and legislate on the side. Thus, to be fair, if you’re looking to turn politics into a full-time career, you could return on your college investment if you can climb high enough on the political rung.

According to Career Explorer, top-level legislators earn six-figures annually. And members of Congress earn $174,000 per year.


25. Preschool Teacher

  • Major: Early childhood education
  • Entry Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Median Annual Salary: $31,930
  • ROI of Attending a Public College: Negative $747,125
  • ROI of Attending a Private College: Negative $800,316

Preschool teachers are responsible for preparing curriculum and educating students younger than 5 who’ve not yet entered kindergarten. They use play and other instructional techniques to teach children basic skills like numbers, shapes, and colors. Lessons center on language, motor, and social skills.

Although the BLS lists an associate’s degree as the minimum entry for a preschool teacher, they also note that more than half of U.S. preschools require their teachers to have bachelor’s degrees. Yet the median salary for a preschool teacher is already lower than the average for someone with only a high school diploma — before one even factors in the cost of college — making this a job definitely not worth the cost of the degree.


Final Word

Although not every job that requires at least a four-year degree may return on its investment, that doesn’t mean college isn’t worth it.

Many employers simply require a college degree as an entry level ticket to a job. But the major often matters less than having a degree. Thus, a degree in general opens up more job opportunities. Further, a 2020 report from the Brookings Institute found the median earnings for bachelor’s degree holders at mid-career are more than twice that of workers with only a high school diploma. And the winter 2021 NACE Salary Survey found college grads have a significantly lower unemployment rate, even during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

So, if you’re looking for a high-paying job, or even just a pay-off for your college investment, you might want to steer clear of these careers. But don’t necessarily steer clear of college.

It should also be noted that even though the jobs listed here don’t have the greatest ROI on their degree investments, PayScale’s annual College Salary Report lists the majors many of them require as leading to the most meaningful work. Sometimes money isn’t everything.

But it might feel like it is if you have a tough time paying off your student loans. So if you’re opting for one of these careers, remember all these ROIs take student loans into account. You can increase your own ROI by choosing a lower cost college and maxing out as many grants and scholarships as you can qualify for, so you can graduate without overwhelming student loan debt.

Also remember these calculations are based on statistical averages and your earnings could be higher — or lower. The important thing is to use the information as a means of making an informed decision about the potential consequences of the costs of college, including attending a more expensive school or taking on more student loan debt than you can handle.

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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