The Best Paying College Degrees

By Ronald Kimmons. May 7th 2016

It has become a cultural expectation in the United States and other developed countries: When you graduate from high school, you head off to college. In preparation for this step, students often ask teachers, counselors and parents what they should major in and how far they should go. The response is often something like this: “It doesn’t matter what you major in. Hardly anyone does what they majored in anyway. Employers just want to see that bachelor’s degree.” Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Statistics show that salaries vary considerably based not only on education level, but also on the course of study and the institution from which one graduates. Students should take this into consideration before heading off to college and starting on the path toward that PhD in comparative literature or social work.

Associate’s Degrees

One of the things to take into consideration when talking about the “best paying” college degrees is the cost-benefit relationship. For example, going from a master’s degree in business to a PhD in business may not be worth the cost given that there is not much of a difference in job prospects. When looking at the benefit of college degrees relative to cost, the best degrees are actually associate’s degrees. These two-year degrees are cheap and they usually focus on training students in very specific areas of high employability. For example, while an associate’s degree in nuclear engineering (the most lucrative associate’s degree) pays about the same as a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, the difference in cost for these degrees is substantial – especially when considering the fact that a bachelor’s degree comes with the additional opportunity cost of two more years studying instead of working in your field. Other high-paying associate’s degrees are in medicine, accounting, dentistry, architecture and pretty much any kind of engineering or technology field.

Bachelor’s Degrees

Despite the fact that associate’s degrees tend to have the best bang for your buck, bachelor’s degrees are still generally considered the standard proof of education and requirement for employment, and they bring in more money than associate’s degrees. According to PayScale.com, the most lucrative bachelor’s degree is petroleum engineering with a median starting salary of $97,900. This is followed by nuclear engineering at $65,100, chemical engineering at $64,500, electrical engineering at $61,300, aerospace engineering at $60,700 and materials science and engineering at $60,400. In general, the bachelor’s degrees that earn the most are the ones that require the most math and just about any kind of engineering ranks high. Other high-earning, non-engineering bachelor’s degrees are finance ($46,500), physics ($49,800) and economics ($47,300).

Master’s Degrees

When it comes to getting a master’s degree that pays, the one with the most earnings opportunity by far is the MBA. It is usually a basic requirement for getting a job as a CEO – which often pays $400,000 or more per year. However, competition is tough for CEO jobs and recent business school graduates are generally not even in the running. MBA degrees also make recent graduates eligible for other high-paying jobs with salaries in excess of $100,000, but competition for these jobs is fierce as well. The vast array of jobs available to MBA graduates, coupled with the competition for those jobs, results in a significant difference of opportunities between those who graduate from high-ranking schools and those who do not. For this reason, while some of the highest earners in the United States are those with MBAs, the average earnings for those with MBAs are lower than what people with other master’s degrees often earn. Other master’s degrees that pay well – and often more than MBA degrees – are engineering management, pharmaceutical science, physics, computer science, human resources management, physician assistant studies, civil engineering, mathematics, environmental science, nursing, occupational therapy, political science and economics.

PhDs/Professional Degrees

The list of best PhD and professional-level fields is very similar to that of the best master’s degree fields. Some of the highest-earning fields are business administration, various engineering fields and computer science. In many cases, however, the only significant opportunity difference between a master’s degree and a PhD is that a PhD qualifies you to teach at universities – which may or may not pay better than your other job opportunities. In the field of medicine, salaries for doctors vary substantially, mostly based on specialization. However, even the lowliest MDs tend to make at least $150,000 per year, while many specialists make $400,000 and up.

Top Programs

When it comes to business administration, while the national averages for various positions such as financial analyst and project manager can dip into the $40,000 range, median starting salaries for recent graduates from top business schools like Harvard and Stanford are around $120,000. However, these top schools are also very expensive – making the question of cost-versus-benefit something to consider. Take, for example, Brigham Young University’s Marriott Business School, which charges a fraction of what most of the top schools charge and yet delivers an average starting base salary of over $90,000.

While salaries for business administration graduates vary significantly based on their alma mater, this is not the only case of such school-based salary differentiation. In many instances, the name of the university on your resume may allow you to command a significantly higher salary. For example, the average starting salary for recent graduates of MIT – arguably the best engineering school in the world – was $67,270 per year. (This figure is not engineering-specific.)

When choosing between schools and fields – and when deciding on how far you intend to go with your education – consider all of your options. Do not simply look at national averages. Look at the statistics for specific schools and programs. Look at what a particular course of study will cost, how long it will take, what the job opportunities will be immediately after graduation and the potential for growth in the future.

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