Best and Worst Paying College Majors According to U.S. Census Bureau Data

Those who study in the fields of science and engineering tend to find more full-time jobs than those with liberal arts degrees

By Neil Johnson
Posted 2012

Best Paying and Most Employable Majors
Best Paying and Most Employable Majors

Of 59 million people in the country with a bachelor’s degree or higher, the one most likely to get the biggest paycheck has an advanced degree in engineering and is self-employed.

And if payment trends for bachelor’s degrees hold true for advanced degrees, the highest paid also is a guy. He’s also the most likely to be working full-time.

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On the other end, the lowest-paid would have a bachelor’s degree in education and probably be a woman working a government job. She’s also least likely to work full-time, according to the results of a recently-released examination of 17 employment fields for college graduates by the United States Census Bureau.

The report also showed an advanced degree, which could be a master’s, doctorate or professional degree, pays off over the years.

And the pocket-protector professions generally pulled down more money than other occupations examined by the Census Bureau.

What probably does not surprise liberal arts and humanities graduates, fields like literature, history and communications were among the lowest paid, though the last place position belonged to education.

In fact, fewer than half of nearly 6 million workers with a degree in literature and languages or visual and performing arts had a full-time job in 2011, the report said.

Another finding probably won’t surprise women. They are paid less than men in every field. The difference appeared most dramatically in some science jobs - such as physical sciences - where women averaged $29,000 less a year. The gender difference was lowest in visual and performing arts and in education.

The report was taken from data collected by the monthly American Community Survey and looked at college graduates over 25 in 2011. It found 58.9 million people had at least a bachelor’s degree, or about the combined populations of the states of California, New York and Mississippi.

Business proved to be the most popular field, with 12 million people majoring in the subject. Graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree in business were the most likely to be working with 64% employed full-time.

It also is the highest paid outside of scientific fields with the median pay for a bachelor’s in business between $60,000 and $62,000 and an advanced degree, including an MBA, between $81,000 and $84,000 a year.

A master’s degree in business could easily repay the time and expense over 20 years in the job market, the report showed, with advance degree holders earning $480,000 more than workers with a bachelor’s through two decades.

Over 20 years, a master’s in education wouldn’t be worth as much, boosting a paycheck by $280,000 over that time.

Here’s a look at some of the report’s findings:

Science and engineering degree holders

These had the best pay for advanced degrees, between $89,000 and $101,000, and the best employment for bachelor’s degree holders at 66%. Engineering was the highest paid at $91,000 and psychology the least among science fields at $70,000.

Business degrees and majors

Graduates with a business degree are the largest group in the workforce and had the highest salary for workers with a bachelor’s degree. They are among the most employable with 65% working full-time all year. An advanced business degree offered the highest pay after science and science-related fields at $81,000 to $84,000.

Science and engineering related

These fields also reward advanced degrees that pay between $81,000 and $96,000, while a bachelor’s degree ranges between $53,000 and $64,000. These graduates are among the most likely to have some employment, even if not full-time.

Education majors

This field has the second-most graduates, but only 41% of those with at least a bachelor’s in education work full-time all year and 34% didn’t work either part-time or full-time. For those with a bachelor’s, the median pay was the lowest at $38,000 to $44,000 and for an advanced degree, $51,000 to $58,000.

Arts and humanities

Except for education, more people with these degrees lacked full-time employment than in other fields. An advanced degree ranged in pay from $65,000 to $72,000 while the salary for a graduate with a bachelor’s was $46,000 to $51,000.

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