<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://q.quora.com/_/ad/bdd9d941ae754c498fe2d2326d029ffa/pixel?tag=ViewContent&amp;noscript=1">

What are the Lowest-Paying College Majors?

Featured Stories

Filter By Categories

Among the many factors which can determine the value of your college degree, such as job satisfaction or personal aptitude, are salary potential and economic return. Although on average college graduates earn over $1 million more than high school graduates during their working lives, the economic risks and returns to Bachelor’s degrees vary considerably depending on the major.

What are the Lowest-Paying Majors?

A review of Census Data by the Center of Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that out of a pool of 137 college majors, the lowest-earning majors were in the fields of arts, education, consumer services, psychology, and social work. The median annual wage for college-educated workers who majored in early childhood education was $39,000, making it the lowest-paying major. Social work, teacher education, and visual and performing arts were also among the top ten lowest-paying majors (median annual wage of $42,000).

Bottom 25 detailed major subgroups ranked by earnings*

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 10.37.20 AM 

*Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of U.S. Census Bureau

In contrast, STEM, health, and business majors were the highest-paying majors, with average wages of $65,000 or more annually. This helps explain the overwhelming popularity of STEM and business majors, which make up a staggering 46 percent of college graduates.

Top 25 detailed major subgroups ranked by earnings*

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 10.38.33 AM

*Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of U.S. Census Bureau

The Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, which has published its own report on earnings variation across college majors, sums it up this way: “majors that emphasize quantitative skills tend to have graduates with the highest lifetime earnings… [while] majors that train students to work with children or provide counseling services tend to have graduates with the lowest earnings.”

Differences in Earnings Within Majors

Just as there are differences in earnings across majors, earnings variation exists within majors as well. “[T]he variation of lifetime earnings within any given major is at least as large as the variation across majors,” states Brookings, “For all majors combined, lifetime earnings at the 25th percentile… are $720,000, but they are $1.82 million at the 75th percentile… This is an increase of 154 percent—almost precisely the relative spread at the median from the lowest-earning to the highest-earning major.” Differences in earnings can be found in all majors, but some majors have more earnings variation than others. According to the Center of Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, business majors’ wages vary the most, earning $43,000 annually at the 25th percentile and $98,000 annually at the 75th percentile; in contrast, education majors’ wages vary the least, earning $35,000 and $59,000, respectively.

What causes these differences? Although one’s college major is an important factor in one’s future earnings, it is by no means the only one. Graduates’ wages are also influenced by college performance; the industry they work in; and whether they work in the for-profit, non-profit, or public sector. They may even be influenced by the state the graduate works in (in California, the median annual earning of business graduates is $70,000; in Florida, the number is $54,000).  

Another possible factor is college selectivity. There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which college selectivity leads to higher earnings. Although graduates from top-tier colleges have been shown to out-earn graduates from middle-tier and bottom-tier colleges, researchers have pointed out that this may be due to students’ pre-college characteristics as selective colleges tend to choose students with skills and characteristics which make them already likely to succeed. However, certain demographics, including low-income students, have been shown to benefit from attending a selective college even when researchers control for the quality of entering students. Similarly, researchers Russell W. Rumberger and Scott L. Thomas found college quality—measured by student social composition, faculty resources, and institutional selectivity—to be an important factor on graduates’ earnings, noticing “significant between-school differences in the average earnings of all graduates except engineering.” These factors work alongside one’s choice of college major in determining his or her future earnings.

Interpreting These Findings

By now, one might be lead to conclude that some majors are inherently more lucrative than others and that switching from, say, an early childhood education major to a business major will guarantee higher earnings during his or her lifetime. However, one should be careful against such oversimplifications as the variation in earnings across majors may be caused by other factors (Brookings discusses some of these factors in an appendix to its report). For example, earnings variation across majors may result from the different abilities of students choosing the different majors. Students, after all, are not randomly selected into their majors, and studies suggest that high school grades and standardized test scores, especially for math, vary among students who choose different majors. This sorting that occurs across majors may be the cause behind the earnings variation between them.

The Brookings Institution ends its report with the optimistic conclusion that “the higher earnings associated with obtaining a bachelor’s degree, even in low-earning fields in the humanities and education, stand up when accounting for the risks of unemployment and underemployment… Even college graduates who begin their careers in a recession with a relatively low-earning major will still earn more over their lifetimes than individuals with just a high school diploma.” However, students, especially those who are taking out loans to finance their education, should still consider the economic risks and returns to their majors. Although student debt at graduation does not tend to vary much by major, graduates’ debt-to-income ratio (how much of their earnings they need to spend on paying down their student debt) varies significantly by major. Graduates who majored in education or psychology, for example, have debt-to-income ratios that are nearly double those of economics or engineering majors. When choosing their majors, students should consider how their majors could impact their debt burden years after graduation.

Edmit's advice helps you to be better off after graduation.

  • Merit and financial aid estimates based on your student profile
  • Earnings estimates and financial scores for your college and major
  • Recommendations to save thousands on college

Sign up for updates

Popular Tags

Financial Aid and Scholarships* Cost of College* paying for college financial aid FAFSA Student Loans* grants and scholarships federal student loans Saving for College* Salary and Career* college tuition 529 plan cost of attendance expected family contribution private student loans college financial planning financial aid award taxes career college savings plan room and board on-campus housing merit scholarships budgeting for college college expenses federal financial aid merit-based financial aid private universities public universities edmit hidden gems edmit team college costs parent PLUS loan college applications living expenses CSS profile education expenses financial need income application fees career fit choosing a major financial aid appeal off-campus housing choosing a college college majors loan forgiveness affordable college degree programs loan repayment repayment plans researching careers student loan assistance student loan debt work-study application fee waivers career exploration college search coronavirus edmit scholarship institutional aid net price private scholarships SAT career goals college visits in-state tuition prepaid tuition plans ACT budget free tuition international students internships need-based financial aid need-blind colleges qualified higher education expenses retirement savings school-based scholarships southern colleges standardized testing tuition discount tuition guarantee tuition payment plans 401k UGMA UTMA applying to college college financial health college ranking systems college spending college transfers credit score discretionary income distance learning education savings accounts fees financial literacy full ride scholarship gap year grants health insurance options investment ivy league schools liberal arts degree meal plans midwestern colleges need-aware colleges out-of-state tuition saving state aid tuition increases western colleges 568 presidents group Inversant MEFA asset protection allowance best price campus life college advisor college credits college deposit college viability community college concurrent enrollment cost by region cost by state crowdfunding dorms early decision educational expenses esports fee waivers financial wellness for-profit universities fraternities and sororities full tuition graduate school home equity loan income share agreements job applications line of credit lists medical expenses medical school military benefits net price calculators new england colleges non-profit universities online learning online tuition out-of-state students percent need met private college consultant remote learning self-assessment siblings small business state schools student bank accounts student organizations subsidized loans title IV schools travel expenses tuition decreases tuition insurance tuition reciprocity undocumented students unsubsidized loans work-based learning