The 15 Best College Majors That Pretty Much Guarantee a Top-Paying Job
Getting a college degree is an expensive proposition. Students can get a lot out of the college experience, and one of the returns for the cost is hopefully a decent job.
But the college major has a lot to do with getting a good-paying job. Of course, everyone has to pick the course of study that suits them but it might help to know about the best college majors of 2023. And by best, we mean the majors that result in the best salaries.
The average starting salary for a college graduate is $58,862, The average salary of jobs that require only a high school diploma is $37,024, and that is after a few years of working.
We looked at the top 15 degrees that create sustainable careers. Our calculations are based on average starting salary; the median salary after five years in the field; the most in demand majors; projected job growth rate; and whether an undergraduate degree or postgraduate programs were needed.
We also wanted to know what the unemployment rate was for these fields, and what the average cost of the college is. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics is a great resource if you are interested in a college major not mentioned here.
How Much Does College Cost?
College costs vary widely from state to state and from private to public schools. The average tuition is $8,700 to about $40,000 not including room and board which can tack on up to $14,000. The cost of college has skyrocketed in the 21st century, according to Education Data.
Some degrees, like engineering, cost more per credit hour. Business, education, and fine art majors also cost more, while math and sociology majors pay the least. According to a study done by Education Next earlier this year, “Most social-science disciplines and philosophy are relatively less expensive, while science, technology, and pre-professional programs like nursing are more costly.”
According to the 2023 Trends in College Pricing report, on average the price of tuition and fees in the 2021-22 academic year were:
- $39,400 at private colleges
- $10,950 at public colleges (in-state residents)
- $28,240 at public colleges (out-of-state residents)
They also report that room and board runs:
- $14,030 at private colleges
- $12,310 at public colleges.
Almost 85% of students get some sort of financial aid. Federal grants, averaging just over $5,000 go to 42% of college undergraduates. Federal loans, averaging $8,285, go to 37% of college undergrads. In 2022, the average amount of student aid for undergraduates was $15,330. Graduate students averaged $27,300 in financial aid. All told, students received $140.6 billion in grants and $94.7 billion in loans as federal aid in 2021-2022’s school year.
In November 2022, the FAFSA Simplification Act (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) made it easier to apply for financial aid, including adding categories and expanding the Pell Grant eligibility.
For many degrees, you may be able to take basic courses at community college and transfer to another college or university for your major.
STEM vs. Liberal Arts
STEM, or Science Technology Engineering & Math, majors are most frequently mentioned as good college degrees for higher earning career options than in the humanities. Labor statistics continuously show steady or increased projected job growth in STEM fields. While visual and performing arts might feed the soul, STEM careers often have a significantly higher entry salary than those in the liberal arts.
What Is the Best College Degree for You?
It is important that you study something interesting to you, and that fits your natural aptitudes.Make sure you study something that fits who you are, rather than changing yourself for the major. Your college major decision doesn’t have to lock you into one path for the rest of your life. You might pick a college major as a freshman, then change it the next year. That is fine.
Good communication skills are important in every career. Critical thinking works whether you are doing project management or petroleum engineering. When choosing a college major, pay attention to what keeps you engaged in a subject, and what turns you off. These are important cues for success on your career path.
Top 15 College Majors for Good-Paying Jobs
- Computer Engineering
- Computer Science
- Healthcare Informatics
- Public Administration
- Construction Management
- Game Design
Keep in mind when looking at salaries listed for each major that there is a wide variation between states, regions, and urban and rural centers. We looked at several employment websites to figure out the starting salary, and mainly used the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the median salary.
Plus, for helpful comparison, average job growth in the United States is 8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook index. Here are some really valuable degrees. Let’s figure out what is the best college major for you.
There are a lot of engineering career paths.The beginning of those paths are pretty similar, but then you get to branch out. There are electrical engineering, industrial engineering, civil engineering, architectural engineering, marine engineering, nuclear engineering, petroleum engineering and chemical engineering.
Every type of engineering pays well, and even though the job growth isn’t especially high, unemployment is very low. Engineering is one of the safest degrees for job markets. College students have multiple career options with these majors.
Most engineering fields require at least a bachelor’s degree to get started. For example, environmental engineers can get work with their bachelor’s, but nuclear engineers usually need at least a master’s or doctorate degree to begin. Here is a breakdown of salaries for a variety of engineering jobs from Michigan Tech.
- Starting Salary: $68,600
- Median Salary: $100,640
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 7%
- Postgraduate degree needed: No, but people with a master’s degree earn almost 20% higher salaries than those with a Bachelor’s degree.
For this degree, you study the design, development, theories and application of computer systems and software development. This can include careers such as computer systems analysts, information systems manager, or a computer systems analyst. It is one of the best college majors because it can be applied to almost any field. Software engineering majors will always find work; unemployment hovers around 2%.
- Starting Salary: $75,900
- Median Salary: $109,020
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 16%
- Postgraduate degree needed: About a third of people working in computer related career paths have postgraduate degrees.
Computer engineers also work on development, design, and software, but focus more on computer architecture like hardware design, artificial intelligence, and operating systems. There is a low unemployment rate for these college majors. Careers include app developers, IT specialists, and firmware engineers.
- Starting Salary: $75.953
- Median Salary: $136,230
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 5%
- Postgraduate degree needed: About 40% of people working in this field have post-graduate degrees.
This relatively new career field has one of the highest projected job growth in any field, at 32% (the average is 8%). This field combines healthcare and computer system knowledge to create digital systems for all medical fields.
Healthcare Informatics workers develop systems that do data analysis and processing, as well as digital communication between healthcare facilities and data security. Health information privacy laws are partially driving this field’s rapid growth.
- Starting Salary: $89,000
- Median Salary: $101,340
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 28%
- Postgraduate degree needed: 57% of workers in this field reported having postgraduate degrees.
Nursing as a college major combines STEM majors with people skills, which makes it a popular course of study. Healthcare professionals can branch off into multiple directions when they have a nursing degree. The highest paying nursing jobs are as a nurse anesthetist ($189,000), emergency room nurse ($116,00), and neonatal nurse ($90,000).
It has become more common for nurses to further train to become a nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners take on responsibilities similar to doctors. Nurse practitioners return to school for either masters or doctoral degrees and have to pass a national board certified exam. The field is growing extremely quickly at 45%, and the average salary is $123,780.
- Starting Salary: $65,775
- Median Salary: $77,600
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 6%
- Postgraduate degree needed: 28% of nurses have advanced degrees. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to be a registered nurse.
Business majors and accounting majors can find a lot of opportunities. You can work in business administration, financial analysis and financial planning, or so many other jobs in the business world. Finance majors also frequently work in real estate, and we can all see that the housing market can be rewarding. Business administration is one of the most popular college majors. Unemployment in finance is less than 3%.
- Starting Salary: $53,250
- Median Salary: $95,570
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 9%
- Postgraduate degree needed: Just under a third of the people working in finance have advanced degrees.
One of the best college majors for the current job market, and for job growth, is cybersecurity. Not all colleges offer this degree, so you can look for information technology as a college major, or the other computer majors mentioned earlier. A doctorate or master’s degree really pays off in this field. A Chief Information Security Officer can make over $475,000 annually.
- Starting Salary: $79,000
- Median Salary: $102,600
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 35% (fastest growing on our list)
- Postgraduate degree needed: About 25% of cybersecurity jobs require a master’s degree.
College majors getting political science or public administration degrees can go into government, nonprofit, and academic careers. They might be city managers, nonprofit directors, work in human resources, or as a public health manager.
Degrees in public administration are good for people interested in going to law school. You can combine a desire to make the world better with a career that pays well. This is an area with extremely low unemployment.
- Starting Salary: $51,630
- Median Salary: $122,510
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 6%
- Postgraduate degree needed: Yes. More than half of job holders have a postgraduate degree.
An economics major is different from finance because it is one of the social sciences, rather than a business degree. College graduates with this degree can become an economist, financial analyst, management consultant, data scientist, and more. It is a high earning field that pays people with postgraduate degrees best.
- Starting Salary: $65,100
- Median Salary: $105,630
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 6%
- Postgraduate degree needed: Yes. More than half of the people working in this field have postgraduate degrees.
Construction management is a great degree for someone who is interested in buildings, has good communication skills, and can understand both the cost analysis and materials science of a project. It is one of the best career options for bachelor’s degree holders who don’t want to go on to get a masters.
- Starting Salary: $54,607
- Median Salary: $98,890
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 8%
- Postgraduate degree needed: Most jobs require bachelor’s degrees, not postgraduate.
Logistics is a college major that has job growth starting with an associate’s degree, which has a vocational emphasis. The bachelor’s degree emphasizes transportation management, systems design, accounting and statistics, and supply chain management, with a human resources component.
Logistics is another quickly growing field. The pandemic has brought the field of logistics to news coverage, with shortages and other issues making headlines.
- Starting Salary: $41,370
- Median Salary: $77,030
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 28%
- Postgraduate degree needed: Less than a quarter of employees in this field have postgraduate degrees.
A physics major gives college students many job opportunities, as long as they are willing to go through graduate programs. Astronomy, meteorology, photonics (the science of using light, such as in bar codes and lasers), climate science, education, robotics, gaming and the list goes on.
Physics is the study of how everything functions, including space, time, and energy. As a field it has a huge amount of flexibility, allowing you to work in academic, research, business, and science settings.
- Starting Salary: $61,200
- Median Salary: $152,430
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 8%
- Postgraduate degree needed: Yes, at least 67% of people in physics related occupations have advanced degrees. Most jobs require a doctorate.
Marketing, advertising, and public relations careers are non-STEM majors that provide good salaries, relatively low unemployment, and don’t require advanced degrees. Marketing promotes and advertises goods and services.
People can start working in the field with a high school diploma, though a bachelor’s degree is needed for advancement.
- Starting Salary: $40.000
- Median Salary: $133,380
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 10%
- Postgraduate degree needed: Not really, only 18% of workers in this field have them.
Game design is a relatively new college major, and isn’t offered everywhere. Other college majors for game design are software development and graphic design. Game design can be used in multiple careers. For example, journalism and education fields are increasingly using game design principles in reporting and teaching.
The gaming market is steadily growing after a big pandemic related bump. It is a strong international market, with even faster job growth in Middle Eastern and African markets.
- Starting Salary: $53,568
- Median Salary: $79,890
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 15%
- Postgraduate degree needed: No.
Bachelor’s degrees in pharmaceutical sciences lead to many jobs, though a graduate degree is needed to become a pharmacist. One of the most lucrative jobs for someone with this bachelor’s is in pharmaceutical sales, earning an average of $70k a year.
Being a pharmacist requires a Doctor of Pharmacy, also called a Pharm.D. Pharmacists work in hospitals, medical research, retail locations, and academics.
- Starting Salary: $99,000
- Median Salary: $128,570
- Growth rate 2020-2030: 2% — this is not a growing field, but the BLS projects 11,300 jobs opening annually through 2030.
- Postgraduate degree needed: Yes.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the Best College Majors
There is a lot to think about when choosing a college major and we have rounded up the answers to some of the most frequent questions. One factor to keep in mind is that the location of a job (or the company if working remotely) has a huge impact on salaries. The Brookings Institute created an interactive tool where you can see how much the same career earns in different states.
Physics majors with graduate degrees who go into physics, astronomy and other sciences have an average salary range between $93,138 and $167,402. Pharmacists with a PharmD (doctorate) average pay range is $135,226 and $152,866 after a few years of experience.
A bachelor’s degree in marketing combined with a few years experience is the most lucrative career. Marketing directors salary range is $100,010 to 192,520, with the median salary at $133,380.
You will need to earn advanced degrees, master’s or doctorate, to make top dollar in almost every field.
About a third of college students change their majors at least once, so start off in an area that is of some interest to you. Psychology or communications are good all-around majors that translate into many types of jobs. You can take classes in other areas until you find something that appeals.
Psychology tends to be the most popular major at most college.
Architecture is considered the hardest, with more than 22 hours a week preparing for classes and doing projects. That time doesn’t include time spent in classes. Architecture combines engineering, physics, construction knowledge and creativity.
The other hardest majors are chemistry, engineering and math. Though of course if you are fascinated by these subjects they will seem less difficult.
There is a healthy job market for all types of engineers. Plus, engineering fields boast good pay along with that low unemployment. Engineering careers include electrical engineering, industrial engineering, civil engineering, architectural engineering, marine engineering, nuclear engineering, petroleum engineering and chemical engineering.
Both majors have a lot of overlap, especially in computer coding and system design. The computer science degree is great for someone heading into software design, systems administration and cybersecurity.
The engineering degree would work on hardware design and networks, and building apps and other freestanding digital platforms.
Nurse practitioners, a nursing specialty, is the fastest growing career field. The field is expected to grow 46% through 2030, and the average salary is $123,780. Top salaries are for nurses who have earned advanced degrees and certifications, and sat for licensing exams.
Data science fields in general have healthy growth predictions, at 36%. Health Informatics, the digital management of health data, records, and communications, is expected to grow by 32% through 2030.
Cybersecurity Information security analysis are also fields that are growing much faster than the average career growth. According to the U.S, Bureau of Labor Statistics, cybersecurity job opportunities are expected to grow by 35% through the year 2030.
The national average of career growth is 5%, with an expected 8.1 million more jobs created by 2030, according to the U.S, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Here are the fastest declining jobs within that same timeframe:
- Word processors and typists: Expected to decline by 38%
- Parking enforcement workers: Expected to decline by 37%
- Tree cutters and trimmers: Expected to decline by 38%
- Nuclear power plant operators: Expected to decline by 27%
Health Informatics jobs can start at $89,000 a year, often after obtaining specific certificates and a bachelor’s degree. Cybersecurity majors start off at the bachelor’s level with an average salary of $72,000. A master’s of science in cybersecurity boosts the average starting salary to $96,000. Computer network architects and computer information systems managers have the highest median salaries in cybersecurity, averaging $116,000 and $151,000 respectively.
Contributor JoEllen Schilke writes on lifestyle and culture topics. She is the former owner of a coffee shop in St.Petersburg, Florida, and has hosted an arts show on WMNF community radio for nearly 30 years. Reporting from former staff writer Susan Shain is included in this report.