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The Worst College Majors for Getting a Big Salary

A bunch of students fleeing a college campus

For several decades, many parents and students alike assume a college degree puts then in a better long-term situation. Compared to those with only a high school diploma, students earning a college degree are believed to excel. Recent statistics support this belief with college educated students earning 67% more on average over their career. But as is often the case, the devil is in the details. Not all college majors are the same, and the economic value of college majors varies significantly. In fact, students pursuing the lowest-paying majors may be better off avoiding college altogether.

In the recent past, certain fields have been recognized as resulting in favorable salaries and incomes upon college graduation. This is particularly true today of all engineering majors who tend to earn strong salaries within five years of graduation. At the same time, however, it’s not surprising that the lowest-paying majors offer very little. Some actually provide incomes comparable to minimum wage jobs. Therefore, it’s essential that students examine the economic value of college majors before determining their life careers. The pursuit may simply not be worth the costs involved when all is said and done.

“Individual financial returns to college are the paramount consideration for most students. Almost all students say access to a well-paying job is a primary reason for attending college.” – Preston Cooper, Visiting Fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity

ROI – Examining Economic Value of College Majors

One way to determine whether a specific college major is worthwhile is to assess its return on investment (ROI). On average, attaining a college degree is reported to provide a ROI of roughly $300,000. This means the economic value of college majors overall tend to provide positive benefits compared to costs. But unfortunately, this claim doesn’t hold true for the lowest-paying majors. The figure also doesn’t account for the number of students who begin college but then dropout. If these considerations are included, the median ROI for college falls to just under $130,000. And notably, more than a quarter of college majors have a negative ROI.

When it comes to the economic value of college majors, there is a significant dichotomy. The gap between the highest-paying and lowest-paying majors is significant. Overall, 80% of all engineering programs have a ROI of over $500,000. In contrast, only 1% of some of the lowest-paying majors like psychology enjoy such a return. When all college majors are included, more than a third offer no significant benefit when one factors in the costs. With that in mind, the following provides a list of some of the lowest-paying majors that students may wish to avoid.

“From a financial perspective, the choice of program is much more important than the decision to attend college at all. Some programs leave students worse off financially than if they’d never attended college at all.” – Preston Cooper

  1. Social Services

    Recent reports note that social services are among the lowest-paying majors with a 5-year median pay of $34,000. Despite the need for such services, compensation remains low. Likewise, on-the-job experience may be equally worthwhile for many in the field.

  1. Performing Arts

    Theatre, dance, and other performing arts are many students’ passion. But unfortunately, the economic value of college majors in this are remain low as well. They too have a five-year median salary of roughly $34,000, which typically fails to cover all the costs involved.

  1. Anthropology

    The study of human behavior is quite intriguing. But when examining the economic value of college majors, this one is also among the worst. When factoring in opportunity costs, tuition, and other expenses, anthropology has a negative ROI.

  1. Childhood Development

    For those interested in early childhood development and education, this is a common college major. But it also ranks among the lowest-paying majors with early salaries under $30,000 annually. This is actually less than a minimum wage salary, which is $31,200 for those working 40-hour weeks.

  1. Health Technicians and Assistants

    The field of healthcare is often believed to offer great career opportunities and well-paying jobs. This is true for many healthcare professions, especially traveling nurses. (Read more about how traveling nurses are helping out with healthcare staffing shortages in this Bold story.) But medical assistants, pharmacy techs, and similar fields rank low in economic value of college majors. These too have a negative ROI.

  1. Culinary Arts

    Many students passionate about cuisines and cooking pursue culinary arts degrees. But despite the apparent demand for fine dining, this college degree is among the lowest-paying majors as well. Early salaries are less than $30,000, and mid-career earnings average about $42,000 a year.

  1. Psychology

    As noted, about 1% of those in psychology have a mid-career earning potential of $500,000 or more. Most, however, are earning closer to $37,000 five years into their career after college. While mental health services are needed, economic value of college majors in this field remain quite low.

  1. Office Management

    When it comes to office management, it might be better to invest in on-the-job experience rather than a college degree. For those with college degrees, mid-career salaries are around $41,000. Thus, when considering college expenses and lost wages while attending school, the investment isn’t likely worth it. Starting at an entry position and pursuing free online education may be a better approach.

  1. Radio/Television

    Given the various forms of entertainment today, the demand for radio and televisions majors have naturally declined. Thus, it may not be surprising that these are also among the lowest-paying majors for college. Basically, early salaries in this field are the same as minimum wage earnings. And mid-career salaries aren’t much better, hovering around $44,000.

  1. Leisure and Hospitality

    Travel and hospitality industries took a big hit during COVID. But these appear to be making a comeback as of late. Unfortunately, college pursuits offer low economic value of college majors in these fields. Though better than some, 5-year median salaries are only $38,000. Thus, these too provide negative ROI when all things are considered.


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