We Did Our Homework, and These 11 College Majors Can Boost Your Earnings

A young professional poses for a picture in front of a hockey arena.
Ken Buker, a data science programmer for the Tampa Bay lightning who earned a degree in Information Science from the University of South Florida, stands outside the rink at Amalie Arena in Tampa. "You are always learning something," Buker said of his job. "It's constantly a puzzle, which I enjoy." Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Ken Buker can’t say exactly what he works on all day to avoid revealing company secrets, but he assures me it’s cool.

Pucks smack the boards as Tampa Bay Lightning hockey players skate across the ice in Amalie Arena — Buker’s office — and we’re chatting about his degree in information sciences.

It’s a versatile major that combines programming, software, IT and data analysis — and happens to be the best degree in America right now, according to a Penny Hoarder analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

We looked at the pay for recent graduates — and all graduates for 172 college degrees —  and how income for those with these majors has changed between 2013 and 2017. The top two best-paying degrees are both under the “information” umbrella, showing just how the rise of big data is shaping the job field for recent graduates.

Consider your doctor’s office, said University of South Florida School of Information instructor John Sullivan, where thousands of records (data) are generated every week. In the past, these records were stored in file cabinets or on open shelves.

Now, they’re stored in electronic databases, which can streamline patient intake, appointment scheduling and the check-in process, making what was an annoying situation better for patients and staff.

An information sciences or studies degree will give a graduate the tools to create the systems that organize those types of records electronically. This major also includes a track to manage that new electronic database.

Lots of Options With an Information Science Background

John Sullivan III, Ph.D., an instructor with the School of Information at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., teaches a class on Nov. 7, 2018. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Buker, who has worked with an independent video game company in addition to a professional hockey team, graduated from the School of Information two years ago.

“It’s not quite business, and it’s not quite engineering,” said Buker, who works as a data science programmer for the Lightning. “So you really get to take ownership.”

Buker tapped that entrepreneurial spirit while working on changes to a video game.

Insurgency: Sandstorm, a first-person shooter PC game, has competitive rounds that last roughly 2 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s thanks in part to data collection and analysis Buker performed using his information science background on the original Insurgency, which had double the amount of time for rounds. (Buker found that unsatisfactory.)

Buker stresses that you don’t have to be a math whiz to succeed in an information sciences major — he only made it to Calculus I at his small private high school. Curiosity, humility and a love of logic and debate are all you need to get started in this major.

“I definitely think someone with a hard work ethic and a learning spirit could do well in the [information sciences] program,” he said. “That is sort of the beauty of the program.”

The median pay for under-30 graduates with this type of degree has grown more than 20% to $65,000 in 2017, according to the latest data available. That’s no surprise for Sullivan, who said the rise of big data makes an information science degree invaluable in the marketplace.

And he’s not worried about the future of machine learning and artificial intelligence’s impact on the world of programming — the idea of coders coding themselves out of the job.

“We’ve had programmers in this world going back to the 1950s, and we have programmers now,” Sullivan said.

Buker is just happy to be working in his dream job, which he said could not have been possible without an information science program.

“It’s a perfect program for entrepreneurial-spirited students who can take what they learn in class and apply it in ways never put in a textbook,” he said.

The 11 Best College Majors for All You Undecided Students

There are two big factors to consider when you look at success when picking a college major: How much are you going to make and can you actually land a job. Also, it helps to know if your major’s graduates are making more or less money than they did in previous years.

We looked at the median earnings — and the growth of those earnings since 2013 — for all full-time workers and the same factors for those at the beginning of their careers.

But we also considered unemployment rate and only looked at degrees that have the most graduates. (So you won’t find petroleum engineering or astrophysics on this list.)

1. Information Sciences

Unemployment Rate: 2.8%

Median Income: $80,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 1.7%

Median Under-30 Income: $65,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income:  20.6%

It’s all about big data.

Information science majors study programming and database analysis. Basically, you’ll use computers to study how people interact with information — aka, data. But, there are several different career tracks for students with an information science degree, including working as an archivist, market research analyst or research librarian.

Common jobs: Software engineer; web developer; computer support specialist; systems administrator.

2. Management Information Systems and Statistics

Unemployment Rate: 2.7%

Median Income: $85,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 5.1%

Median Under-30 Income: $60,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income:11.3%

This degree is similar to information science, but it’s more business-focused. There are multiple tracks for management information systems degrees, but most involve using computers and databases to maximize profit for a business.

Don’t worry if you’re not comfortable programming. MIS degrees paths don’t have to be development-focused, according to the University of Arizona Management Information Systems website. That link also has a nifty breakdown of the difference between similar degrees in computer science and electrical computer engineering, (which you’ll see under a different name below.)

Common jobs: Miscellaneous manager; software engineer; systems manager; systems analyst; computer support specialist.

3. Construction Services

An apartment building is under construction.
A new apartment building is under construction in Tampa, Fla., on March 27, 2018. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder.

Unemployment Rate: 1.8%

Median Income: $75,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 8.7%

Median Under-30 Income: $62,000

Five-Year Change in Under-20 Income: 15%

This is basically a degree in construction management — nearly a third of graduates work as a construction manager — in which students learn the ins and outs of running a construction site. That includes everything from accounting and cost estimation to the intricacies of construction materials and land development.

Right now, builders can’t find enough workers to fill roles, there’s an impending affordable housing crisis that will require tons of new inventory and the U.S. infrastructure will likely need hundreds of millions of dollars in updating over the next decade. So, yes, this is likely a good time to get into the field.

Common jobs: Construction manager; construction supervisor; cost estimator; chief executive

4. Electrical Engineering Technology

Unemployment Rate: 2%

Median Income: $80,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 6%

Median Under-30 Income: $63,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income: 4.4%

Last year, the Penny Hoarder chatted with an electrician who makes six figures a year without a college degree. That’s after decades on the job, however.

In electrical engineering technology, you’ll study the infrastructure — circuits, wiring, microprocessors, etc. — behind all sorts of electronic equipment.

At Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, students can specialize in computer technology or telecommunications. Many graduates go into software development, so most students who major in electrical engineering technology likely take the computer track.

Common jobs: Software developer; miscellaneous manager; electrical engineer; miscellaneous engineer; mechanical engineer.

5. Political Science and Government

Unemployment Rate: 3.2%

Median Income: $65,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 0.5%

Median Under-30 Income: $45,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income: 4.4%

A political science and government degree is much more general than the previous majors on this list, meaning a student will have a wide latitude to choose the field to pursue after school. According to the Wake Forest University College of Political Science, you’ll study communications and writing as well as technology and analysis.

Common jobs: Miscellaneous manager; chief executive; manufacturing sales representative; marketing or sales manager; paralegal or legal assistant.

6. Advertising and Public Relations

A young woman poses for a portrait in front of advertising campaigns.
Taylor Yianakopolos graduated with a degree in advertising/public relations from the University of Tampa in May 2018. Immediately after graduation, she landed a job as an account coordinator for Schifino Lee. “There’s always going to be a need for advertising,” Yianakopolos said. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Unemployment Rate: 3.3%

Median Income: $58,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 5.5%

Median Under-30 Income: $48,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income: 6%

There are two tracks you can take in advertising and public relations: the creative path or the business path. At the University of Tampa, courses cover a wide swath of topics, including journalism, design and writing.

Common jobs: Miscellaneous manager; marketing or sales manager; manufacturing sales representative; customer service representative; public relations specialist.

7. General Science

Unemployment Rate: 3.6%

Median Income: $60,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 1.2%

Median Under-30 Income: $45,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income: 4.4%

General science is great for students who want to get into some field of science but don’t now which one. You can take classes in chemistry, marine biology, astrophysics or even computer information science at the University of Oregon.

As you can see below, many of those who stick with a bachelor’s in general science end up as registered nurses — a lucrative and in-demand field.

Common jobs: Registered nurse, miscellaneous manager; elementary or middle school teacher; manufacturing sales representative; retail supervisor.

8. Biochemical Sciences

Unemployment Rate: 2.9%

Median Income: $55,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 2%

Median Under-30 Income: $43,500

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income: 6.2%

Biochemical sciences majors do tend to move onto graduate degrees in a range of fields from dentistry to podiatry, according to the Marquette University undergraduate studies website. But a degree in this field can also pay off right away with a job as a pharmaceutical sales representative or technical writer.

Common jobs: Physical scientist; miscellaneous manager; high school teacher; chemist; science technician.

9. Special Needs Education

Unemployment Rate: 2.9%

Median Income: $45,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 1.8%

Median Under-30 Income: $41,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income: 18.8%

If you Google this major, you’ll find most results are for online colleges specializing in special needs education.

Students will learn to work with children on the autism spectrum, with learning or intellectual disabilities or with emotional or behavioral disorders, according to the Florida State University College of Education, an on-campus undergraduate program that is bundled with a master’s degree. Many schools offer similar bundled degrees, but our income data is for those with just a bachelor’s degree.

Common jobs: Elementary or middle school teacher; special education teacher; high school teacher; secretary or administrative assistant; education administrator.

10. Criminal Justice

A student practices driving a police car
William Englert (top left) practices driving a police car at St. Petersburg College on Nov. 26, 2018. Englert graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in May 2018. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Unemployment Rate: 3.5%

Median Income: $54,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 0.2%

Median Under-30 Income: $40,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income: 3%

There are quite a few schools, like the University of Central Florida, that offer online degrees in criminal justice. If a student plans to become a law enforcement officer — at the local, state or federal level — or a detective, the student can pursue an applicable curriculum.

Some schools, like Utica College, offer a more analytical path to eventually work as a crime analyst.

Common jobs: Police officer; miscellaneous manager; social worker; probation officer; bailiff, correctional officer or jailer.

11. Animal Sciences

Unemployment Rate: 1.7%

Median Income: $49,000

Five-Year Change in Income: 1%

Median Under-30 Income: $34,000

Five-Year Change in Under-30 Income: 5.1%

Animal science majors have an extremely flexible curriculum that includes everything from breeding and genetics to behavior and molecular biology, according to the Cornell Department of Animal Science. A student can train to work with farm animals, laboratory specimens or exotic species.

Texas A&M University’s Department of Animal Science offers similar flexibility, allowing students to choose studies that set them up to work in the world of agriculture or go on to veterinary school or graduate school in another medical field.

Common jobs: Farmer, rancher or agriculture manager; miscellaneous manager; miscellaneous agriculture worker; sales representative; general supervisor.

Here Are the Best Majors For Young Workers by Pay

For the list above, we considered multiple factors to rank best majors, including the earnings and earnings growth of all workers. But what if we solely considered pay — and specifically, pay for those who are just starting their careers?

As in the list above, we included only college majors that led to jobs with unemployment rates under the U.S. unemployment rate, and those that had at least the median number of full-time, year-round workers. For this analysis, we looked at workers under 30 who have only a bachelor’s degree.

Following are the 10 best college majors for young workers when you consider median pay only:

  1. Chemical engineering — $65,000
  2. Construction services — $62,000
  3. Civil engineering — $61,200
  4. Pharmacy sciences — $55,000
  5. Nursing — $53,000
  6. Accounting — $52,000
  7. Business and medical administration — $48,000
  8. Advertising and public relations — $48,000
  9. Medical technologies technicians — $48,000
  10. Marketing and marketing research— $47,000

Methodology

For this project, we used U.S. Census microdata from the 2013 and 2017 American Community Survey. (The latter was released in October). We created two groups: all full-time, year-round workers and just those who are under 30 years old.

We focused on 172 college majors, from accounting to zoology. We excluded some degrees, such as military technologies and school student counseling from our younger group due to a lack of a viable sample size.

We compared the change in pay between 2013 and 2017 and the current median income, for each major using a statistical technique to standardize the data. This produced a ranking of the best college major for pay.

We then pared this group down to only those degrees that currently have the median number of full-time workers or more, ones in which median income has gone up since 2013 and those that have unemployment rates below the 3.7% national average.

The ranking also includes a degree from each major category to provide, some variation to choose from (instead of all engineering-type degrees).

Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder.

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