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Highest Paying College Degrees

Written by Nickel - 29 Comments

Earlier this week, I ran across some interesting data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. More specifically, they had a listing of the ten highest paying college degrees of 2010.

Note that they’re talking specifically about Bachelor’s degrees here, so things like doctors, lawyers, etc. are off limits. Here’s the list:

  1. Petroleum Engineering ($86,220)
  2. Chemical Engineering ($65,142)
  3. Mining & Mineral Engineering (incl. Geological) ($64,552)
  4. Computer Science ($61,205)
  5. Computer Engineering ($60,879)
  6. Electrical/Electronics & Communications Engineering ($59,074)
  7. Mechanical Engineering ($58,392)
  8. Industrial/Manufacturing Engineering ($57,734)
  9. Aerospace/Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering ($57,231)
  10. Information Sciences & Systems ($54,038)

Notice anything about the entries on that list? Every single one of them involves science, engineering, or computers. This probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, though I did sort of expect to see something in the finance sector creep onto that list.

Just for the sake of contrast, check out this list of the lowest paying college majors that I published last fall:

  1. Social work
  2. Special education
  3. Elementary education
  4. Home economics
  5. Music and dance

Quite a difference, huh? This isn’t to say that you (or your children) should pick a major based solely on future earning potential. After all, not everyone is cut out to be a petroleum engineer, and fewer yet would be happy showing up to work as one on a daily basis. Nonetheless, future earning potential is one of many factors that should probably be kept in mind during the overall decision-making process.

What did you major in, and do you have any regrets?

Published on February 19th, 2010
Modified on February 23rd, 2010 - 29 Comments
Filed under: Education

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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29 Responses to “Highest Paying College Degrees”

  1. 1
    Spoco Says:

    I majored in Information Technology Services, and it took me five years post-college to get to the kind of salary that is reported here. In fact, my wife, who majored in Elementary Education, made more than me for two years post-college.

    Part of it may be that I am not in Silicon Valley, Boston, or another computer-centric part of the nation, which is where I think the majority of the numbers in these surveys come. We had an opening for someone with a Info Systems degree and we offered $35,000, and he declined based on s survey like this. 3 months later he called back begging for the job.

    This is the largest employer in the area, a “Best Places to Work” type place as well, not a small startup.

  2. 2
    Olivia Says:

    I took graphic design. Though it doesn’t pay the mega bucks my engineering cousins got, for the most part I loved the field. Every day you got to play with ideas and make information look good. To me, making a living at something you enjoy offsets the lifestyles they became accustomed to. I had fun all week, they had to wait for the weekends.

  3. 3
    daddy paul Says:

    I majored in Electrical Engineering. I should have stayed in Mechanical or even chemical. Electrical Engineering evolves too quickly for even the brightest of us to keep up. One of my first jobs was replacing tubes on a TV assembly line (in the USA). Do any electrical engineers today even know how a vacuum tube operates?

  4. 4
    Erin Says:

    I got a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. So far I haven’t regretted it. It allowed us to buy a house and still live comfortably on just over half of my income (in a LCOL area) and send my husband back to school with cash.

    If I was in a larger city I probably wouldn’t be as happy though. My employer is willing to work with me when we have kids so I can telecommute part time.

  5. 5
    shauntih Says:

    I majored in Electrical Engineering and stayed with it only a year. I hated it and my area was tied to the building industry which happened to be in a downturn at the time. I switched to Information Technology and couldn’t be happier. I started off getting more money in IT than I did as an Electrical Engineer.

  6. 6
    Tricia Says:

    I’m a mechanical engineer. People considering a major should realize though that although engineers make a high starting salary, their salary is capped relatively low compared to managers ect. An engineer is likely to work long hours and always be “well off”, but not rich the way a financial major or business owner has a chance to be. That being said, I have no regrets because I choose work that I love.

  7. 7
    Daron Says:

    I hold a Civil Engineering degree earned over 20 years ago from a major state university. I work at a Fortune 500 company and our hiring pay is similar to the survey above.

    Regarding what I did: I took the right job out of college for all the wrong reasons. Mainly, I chose my first job based on salary only. Fine reason, but looking back not the right one. But it worked out fine; I have a great job unrelated to my starting job, so I look at it that I took the right job (it led to today, after all) for all the wrong reasons.

    The shocking issue, in addition to the multitude of low-paying jobs, is the difficulty in getting those jobs straight out of school. The long-standing implied contract between the older folks, me included, and the new graduates is that if the younger folks follow the rules, go to school, get a degree, the rest will take care of itself. And that’s just not true. Not only does this create economic hardship, but is resulting in the younger crowd even more not trusting the “establishment”. But why should they at this point?

  8. 8
    James R Says:

    I majored in Electrical Engineering with a broadcast emphasis. I had the desire to work on the mission field with Trans World Radio (TWR).

    I graduated and went to work for an industrial control panel manufacturer. I had worked for the company during the summer while in school. As for working for TWR, I felt that I did, as a supporter of friends I knew with that organization. I sure don’t have the “personality” for being an-air at a radio station!

    I might have been able to make lots more money by picking a different industry to work in. I might have had to cycle between numerous jobs, too.

    I’m satisfied with my wages, I live within my means, I like my work, the commute is negligible, I work with a good bunch of folk, and I’ve been at it for 30 years – same place.

  9. 9
    Sharon Says:

    I have a degree in Business Admin and I have been an auditor and accountant. I was very close to going back to earn my teaching cert so I could be home with the kids more, but in the end I just love what I do. And teaching was not my dream so I don’t know how long I could be happy doing that. I am 8 years out of school and very happy with my salary. I also feel comfortable that I could find another position if needed.

  10. 10
    RS Says:

    EE w/ $59k starting, but I live in a high-cost area, so it doesn’t go that far.
    I agree w/ #6 Tricia. Engineering requires longer hrs than mgmt and are capped at much less. But you can’t put a price on job satisfaction, I just love to see things work, the process involved with getting it to work, and learning how things work.

  11. 11
    John Says:

    Mechanical Engineer here. When I graduated that survey said my field would fetch about $52,000 average. I’ve always lived in lower cost areas so I don’t make that much even now, 6 years later. I am still well above the average income for the area so I feel that I have plenty of financial flexibility. I just can’t have a new motorcycle every year.

  12. 12
    Floridian Says:

    This list (highest paying jobs) looks about the same as it did when I looked at it 10 years ago! I remember briefly wondering if I made a mistake not being an engineer of some kind!

    As for the finance sector not making it – just a Bachelor’s degree won’t net much – you really need some post-grad education, whether it be a masters degree or a certification (CPA, CFA, etc), before you start to earn some real money. An accountant with a bachelor’s degree may be able to pull in $45K fresh out of college with nothin’ but a bachelor’s degree and a pulse. But if that accountant never gets more education (CPA or even MBA), there won’t be many advancement opportunities for him/her.

    Regardless, I don’t think any one should chase down a career just based on earnings potential. Money can NOT buy happiness. There’s a LOT to be said for loving what you do. I LOVE what I do, so I know I made the right choice! I get paid to, as my duaghter puts it, “play with money all day!” Now pardon me…break time’s over….back to the spreadsheets!! Have a great weekend all!

  13. 13
    DD Says:

    Love this list. Since I was the only one of my blue-collar family to ever go to college 25 years ago, and being female, I thought the only things available were teaching and nursing. I went into teaching, but I dearly loved math and wanted to major in language arts and secondary math (something, like engineering) but the college cirriculum did not leave room for this, crowding up my schedule with so many things that had to be liberal arts related to receive my BA – the math thing just wouldn’t fit in. In fact I got a funny look when I asked about it during registration. I’m sure other universities were more up-to-date, but mine was the one available to me at the time.

    Now there’s no abundance of jobs in my field and I’ve gone into commmercial construction. And NOW I know what I wanted to do….be an engineer! That was my math calling I heard when I was going through all the liberal arts stuff.

    Add to this that after I got my BA, I returned to take some math/science courses, double aced these and was suggested for a scholarship in computer science – but since I already had a degree, I wasn’t eligible.

    I’m glad I’ve got my degree, but it’s kinda like making that winning touchdown only to realize you were running the wrong way.

  14. 14
    Darren Says:

    I majored in econ while in college, because they didn’t have the business major I wanted.

    As far as regrets, I don’t have any in regards to choosing my major. I had friends who studied computer science and engineering, but that stuff seemed way too complex for me. Econ was a subject I understood and got good grades in.

    Looking back now, what I’ve been thinking about more and more lately is the usefulness of a college degree for most people. They say that 10 years after college, around 80% of people are working in a field other than their area of study. If I had to be honest, I don’t think that I needed a college degree to do the work I do today. Most of the training is on the job anyway. Unless you’re absolutely committed to becoming an engineer, computer programmer, teacher, or doctor, I’m not sure I see a lot of financial value in a degree anymore.

    Do you guys agree? Has this been your experience as well?

  15. 15
    H Lee D Says:

    My major was in music ed. It’s what I’ve been doing since I graduated, and I love doing it. I can live on the salary, I have decent benefits. But if you don’t love teaching, you’ll hate teaching. (And sometimes, you’ll hate it anyway, or at the least resent all the time it takes and negative energy you get from people about it.)

    There have been quite a few engineers who have come to be teachers in schools where I’ve worked, and none of them have lasted more than two years.

  16. 16
    Sarah Says:

    I majored in EE in college. When I graduated in 1999 the rule of thumb was 10k x your GPA was the salary you could expect; I did better with starting at $42k. 10.5 years later I am at $79k. I live in the metro Atlanta area.

    Electrical Engineering was and is one of the most valuable bachelor’s degrees you can earn. It’s hard but it’s like a test… just pass it and the doors will open. I do the math sometimes on going back to medical school or law school and after years of lost income plus tuition … it would take a long time to break even. I gave up on going back to school to do anything less a long time ago.

    My dad did not finish his degree and while we make a similar salary, I know that not having one has caused him to be passed over for opportunities on many occasions. I would never recommend to anyone that a degree was not worth it. Looking good “on paper” is half the battle to getting a better job for any reason.

  17. 17
    bodark Says:

    I went to the US Army Infantry. Then went to college b/c the Army told me to (insert Forrest Gump). BBA in Business from a state school.

    I make enough, actually more than any of the salaries listed. I’ve gotten to where I am with nothing more than “Yes Sir/Ma’am I’ll try my best”.

    And the comments about managers… Please read “A message to Garcia”. Note the year it was written, still hold true today.

  18. 18
    Kathy F Says:

    I am a chemical engineer and don’t regret it now. But when I graduated in 1982, the country was in a recession and no one was hiring. So I went to work as a waitress! But I finally got a job later with very long hours, got laid off and then finally ended up working for federal govt. where I have been for 25 years. The salary was not as good as first, I am doing well now despite living in a high cost area. The Federal govt health/retirement benefits are good.

  19. 19
    Keith Says:

    I graduated in Mining Engineering in 2006. I love going to work everyday, but I am already approaching the engineer salary cap mentioned above. I’m surprised to see MnE represented on the list at all. When I was still in school, I had to estimate based on the other engineering disciplines (somewhere between Civil and Electrical seemed about right at the time.)

  20. 20
    Taryn Says:

    I made bad decisions in college- majored in History and Classical Studies. And then- as if I didn’t learn in undergrad- I went to graduate school for a Masters in Hebrew Bible.

    Oh well- my husband went for computer science- so at least he made a good choice.

  21. 21
    KC Says:

    I majored in History and at least it was at a top school – the history major didn’t look impressive on the resume, but the school did. Anyway, of course, I had to get a masters – education. I didn’t like my prospects in education so I worked on an information science masters while working full-time. As a librarian I still couldn’t get near any of those salaries listed unless I became director of a fairly large library system (100+ employees). Thankfully I married a doctor.

  22. 22
    The Rat Says:

    It’s unbelievable how much it can cost for an education these days, especially the more technically-oriented programs.

    I did a Bachelor of Commerce and I have no regrets whatsoever; however, the price of an eduction will definitely keep me thinking as I start a family.

    Nice post.

  23. 23
    Matt Says:

    I knew all through high school I wanted to go to the large, high quality state institution and major in chemical engineering. I’ve never regretted the decision. The pay and benefits are good, my employer is flexible, and I just really love going to work everyday in a chemical plant.

  24. 24
    thad (my2fish) Says:

    civil/structural engineering, graduated 2001

    like the work – been in structural engineering only since graduation. last 16 months or so has been really slow, but otherwise, I’ve been happy with the choice.

  25. 25
    Vicky Says:

    I majored in IT and started out at $55K the month after graduation. Within the year I switched from traditional IT to software development and have been happily programming for the last 9 years. I would say that for software engineering most any logical, technical degree will do as long as you have the right mindset. My fellow software developers have majors from many fields, including computer science, electrical engineering, astronomy, physics, and math.

  26. 26
    Y Says:

    I joined the Army and did logistics, got out finished my bachelors in Computer Science and worked for a company doing training. That lead me to finish my masters of education in Information Technology which qualifies me to be a teacher or build training for the private or public sector. I build training programs and make around 60k and I love it.

  27. 27
    Angela Says:

    I majored in journalism. It was great at the time, until newspapers started collapsing and print reporters began getting laid-off left and right. However, I love what I do and I’ve had to do a lot of learning since my BA (had to in order to compete). I’ve also been able to land other writing jobs outside of the news industry. So I’m not complaining. The pay isn’t brilliant, but I’m surviving just fine!

  28. 28
    Eric Says:

    sigh

  29. 29
    Darren Says:

    Civil Engineer, graduated 1997, been out of work a year and simply cant find any in columbus area

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