The cost of college is high, and so is the collective student loan debt shared by Americans. And for many college graduates, these economic challenges are magnified by the fact that loan repayment begins immediately upon graduation. In many cases, even those who are fortunate enough to secure a job right out of school will be settling for a fairly modest entry-level pay. So how can you reconcile the demand to earn a living and repay your loans with the fact that you’re entering the job market without experience?
Obviously, lying on your resume is always an option. Just kidding. Seriously. Don’t do that. May we suggest instead setting your sights on a degree that is naturally correlated with a higher starting salary. If you’d rather bypass the cost of college altogether, you can jump to our look at 10 Six-Figure Jobs You Can Get Without a College Degree.
But If you’d instead prefer to invest in a higher education with a stronger promise of immediate return on your investment, read on.
Is a College Education Worth It?
Technically, yes, a college education is worth the money. Earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university is still one of the best ways to advance in your career and earning potential. In spite of the acceleration in cost, nearly every study that you consult will tell you the same basic thing. Those with a bachelor’s degree will, on average, earn tens of thousands more per year than their counterparts who have earned a high school diploma.
According to a study published by Northeastern University in the summer of 2020, and using pre-pandemic figures, those with a high school diploma earned an average salary of $38,792 with an unemployment rate of 3.7%. By contrast, those with a completed bachelor’s degree earned an average annual salary of $64,896 and saw an unemployment rate of just 2.2%.
Even after you factor in the obligation of loan repayment, your long-term prospects are stronger if you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree. And yet, there are still reasons to proceed with caution. While there is a wage premium for those with a respectable college degree, it surely isn’t what it used to be. As the cost of college has skyrocketed, wages have remained comparatively stagnant.
Forbes reports that, “According to figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the average annual growth in wages was only 0.3% between January 1989 and January 2016. That’s right, the cost to attend a university increased nearly eight times faster than wages did . While the cost of a four-year degree exploded to $104,480, real median wages only went from $54,042 to $59,039 between 1989 and 2016.”
The math suggests that a college degree is worth it, but to be sure, the benefits of earning this degree have been somewhat blunted by these contradictory trends. So how can you be sure you’re really getting your money’s worth?
Well, for one thing, shop wisely. We can’t recommend this strongly enough. Do your due diligence. Ensure the schools on your list are accredited, reputable, and within your price range. Conduct campus visits and speak to students, alumni and advisors to learn more. Your top goal is to find a school that is compatible with you. And only after you’ve done all of that should you focus on choosing a degree with a good immediate return on your investment.
Best-Paying Degrees vs. Highest Entry-Level Paying Degrees
Before proceeding, it’s important to make a distinction about the purpose of this list. This is not a list of the best paying college degrees over time. There are numerous undergraduate degree paths that can lead to higher earnings over time. For instance, the ceiling for those with a degree in business and an entrepreneurial spirit is virtually limitless. However, a bachelor’s degree in business may not, by itself, lead to high base salary earnings. Most who reach the higher wage echelons do so through experience, networking, and career development, all of which can take time.
Also keep in mind that many of the top paying jobs require more than an undergraduate degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists professionals like psychiatrists, surgeons, dentists, and pilots in the top earning strata. However, these are occupations which require extensive post-graduate education including the acquisition of advanced degrees or certifications, qualification for licensure, and substantial real-world training.
Therefore, you won’t see undergraduate degrees listed below that typically only serve as precursors to an advanced degree. The current list, with figures compiled through Glass Door, is strictly reserved for those jobs that can bring you an immediate return on your investment in a college education.
No doubt you will observe some recurrent themes here below. Routinely, undergraduate degrees in the STEM fields lead to higher base salary opportunities. This list is dominated by disciplines associated with engineering, information technology, and the computer sciences. Nursing is the only profession that Glass Door identifies in the Top Ten for entry-level pay. In other words, if your primary goal is to jump directly from your college studies into a well-paying career, you improve your odds immensely by pursuing an undergraduate degree in a STEM field.
If you’re interested in a broader look at some of the college degrees that are most likely to lead to a high-paying career over time, check out our look at 10 College Degrees That Can Lead to a Six-Figure Income.
Otherwise, read on for a look at these 10 College Degrees that can lead to above average earnings right away…
1. Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science
Glass Door lists the Median Base Salary for those with a bachelor’s degree in computer science at $70,000. But this base salary only tells part of the story. The bigger part of the story is the sheer versatility of this degree. A degree in computer science could qualify you to perform in a wide range of roles that, over time, can lead to robust wages. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Software Developers, Quality Assurance Analysts, and Testers earned a median annual salary of $110,140 in 2020. Computer Hardware Engineers earned a median salary of $119,560 that year. Computer and Information Systems Managers pulled in an extremely competitive $151,150 median pay in 2020. In addition to this higher-than-average long term earning potential, there is a wage premium for those who bring current knowledge and up-to-date skill sets into these areas of fast-paced technological development. Therefore, opportunities abound for candidates who are fresh out of school. If you are technically inclined and one of your top priorities is to begin earning a strong salary right out of school, a bachelor’s degree in computer science is your best first step.
2. Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering
According to Glass Door, the median base salary for those with a degree in electrical engineering is $68,438. This places electrical engineering at the top of the list for entry-level pay among the engineering subfields that dominate our rankings. A bachelor’s degree will qualify you to work as an electrical or electronics engineer, where you’ll have the opportunity to design, develop, test, repair, maintain, and/or manufacture electronic equipment. According to the BLS, experienced electrical engineers enjoy strong earning potential, pulling in a median salary of $100,830 in 2020. Those who leverage the same bachelor’s degree to become electronics engineers earned a median salary of $107,540 in the same year. According to the BLS, job opportunities are expected to grow at a roughly average rate of 7% between now and 2030. It is also important to note that, in most cases, you would be required to earn a master’s degree in this specific engineering concentration in order to qualify as a licensed Professional Engineer (PE). Continuing on to earn this advanced degree and subsequent licensure could improve your job prospects and pay rate in a competitive labor market.
3. Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering
Glass Door lists the median base salary for graduates with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at $65,000. Mechanical engineers work with mechanical devices, thermal sensors, engines, and machinery, conducting research, designing technology, investigating equipment failures, and much more. In fact, mechanical engineering represents one of the broadest and most varied engineering subfields. Your work can encompass an extremely wide range of contexts from developing energy efficient household appliances and repairing industrial manufacturing equipment to providing routine maintenance for elevators and building internal combustion engines. This diversity of opportunities means that there are countless ways to channel your undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering into a well-paying position, both in the short- and long-term. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Mechanical Engineers earned a median salary of $90,160 in 2020. Once you’ve gathered some workplace experience, you’ll be in line for strong salary growth and a stable career. With respect to emergent job opportunities, the BLS reports that this field, like electrical engineering, will grow at a rate of 7% between now and 2030, which is about equal to the rate of growth for all fields. And as with electrical engineering, in most cases, you would be required to earn a master’s degree in the mechanical engineering concentration in order to qualify as a licensed Professional Engineer (PE). Continuing on to earn this advanced degree and subsequent licensure could improve your prospects in a competitive labor market.
4. Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering
According to Glass Door, chemical engineering majors will earn a median base salary of $65,000. As a chemical engineer, you’ll study at the nexus point of multiple scientific disciplines including chemistry, biology and physics. You will also take an array of math-intensive courses on your way to qualifying for a career in manufacturing development, safety compliance oversight, food and drug testing, environmental analysis, industrial design and many, many other sectors. The chemical engineering degree is extremely versatile. It is perhaps for this reason that, in spite of ranking fourth among entry-level salaries, chemical engineering offers the highest long term median salary among the engineering subfields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Chemical Engineers took in a median salary of $108,540 in 2020. Chemical Engineers also enjoy a somewhat higher growth potential among the engineering subfields listed here, with a 9% rate of growth, as compared to 7% among mechanical engineers and electrical engineers. It is important to note that, in most cases, you would be required to earn a master’s degree in this specific engineering concentration in order to qualify as a licensed Professional Engineer (PE).
5. Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Engineering
Glass Door indicates that those earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering will qualify for a job with a median base salary of $64,381. Industrial engineering is a field that largely concerns the effective coordination of humans, machines, and products within a broader system such as a factory, warehouse, production facility, or construction site. In this regard, industrial engineering carries a certain managerial element. Those working in the role oversee production schedules, control the flow of processes, and take steps to maximize operational efficiency. Among engineering subdisciplines, industrial engineering offers a more modest salary potential. In 2020, Industrial Engineers earned a median salary of $88,950 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the subfield does stand out for its growth potential, with a very strong 14% rate of increase in available job opportunities projected between now and 2030. Again, as with other engineering subdisciplines, it is important to note that you would likely be required to earn a master’s degree in the industrial engineering concentration in order to qualify as a licensed Professional Engineer (PE). Taking this step would likely improve your salary potential beyond the median pay identified here above.
6. Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology
Graduates with a degree in IT will be in line to earn a median base salary of $64,008, says Glass Door. Like Computer Science, this closely related degree area can lead directly into a wide range of careers with excellent long term pay. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that Information Security Analysts earned a median pay of $103,590 in 2020. That same year, Database Administrators and Architects earned a median salary of $98,860 while Computer and Information Systems Managers earned a median pay of $151,150. Not only that, but information technology skills are relevant in nearly every area of the labor market from private sector operations in healthcare, banking, and supply chain management to public sector operations in government works, charitable foundations, and transportation grids. Where you apply your information technology skills and degree will depend on your area of interest and personal strengths. The good news is, your salary potential is comparatively high regardless of your chosen concentration or the field in which you apply your degree. And in most cases, a bachelor’s degree will be sufficient to start you on the path to a secure and well-paying role in the field.
7. Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering
According to Glass Door, a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering can lead to a base salary of $61,500 for those who are fresh out of their undergraduate studies. This subdiscipline provides the opportunity to focus your engineering acumen on the design and construction of major development projects including residential communities, corporate campuses, infrastructural projects, transportation systems, public works, and much more. In most cases, you’ll also have a chance to split your time between office work and site work, especially for those serving in a supervisory role. In most cases, rising to this supervisory role would require you to earn a master’s degree in civil engineering or a closely related concentration, and to subsequently earn your license as Professional Engineer (PE). That said, a bachelor’s degree would put you in a strong position to work in a support or technical role in any of these contexts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civil Engineers earned a median salary of $88,570 in 2020. With a growth rate of 8%, which is roughly as fast as the average across all professions, the field of civil engineering is forecast to add roughly 25,300 jobs between now and 2030.
8. Bachelor’s Degree in Statistics
A bachelor’s degree in statistics or a related field of applied mathematics can lead to a median base salary of $60,000, according to Glass Door. But this only tells part of the story for those with a degree in statistics or a related discipline. Bachelors in statistics will gain skills and qualifications that can apply in an extremely broad range of professional fields. For instance, with a concentration in biostatistics, you could work in the public health field. A focus on economic statistics could qualify you to consult municipal governments on budgetary management. A specialization in business statistics could help you secure a role as a human resources specialist in a large corporation. In other words, how you channel your bachelor’s degree in statistics depends on a combination of interest and opportunity. Long term salary potential may vary depending on the field in which you apply your degree, however, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—which probably employs a few of its own statisticians—the median annual wage in 2020 was $92,270. But this is an area in which you will likely see significant opportunities for professional and financial advancement as you gather experience and sharpen your area of focus. Those with highly specialized knowledge and skills are often in line for higher pay. In fact, according to the BLS, those in the 90th percentile of earnings among statisticians took in an average annual wage of $150,840 in 2020. Simply stated, if you’re really good with numbers, you can probably count on a decent starting pay and excellent long term salary growth.
9. Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing
Bachelor’s degrees in nursing can lead to immediate opportunities to begin working in the field as well as a median base salary, according to Glass Door, of $58,928. Registered nurses will perform an extremely wide range of functions in the healthcare industry from the coordination of patient care and the application of therapeutics to the monitoring of vital signs and the conveyance of information between patients and physicians. Above and beyond all of this, nursing includes critical personal components such as the need for empathy, positive bedside manner, patience, and emotional fortitude. This is because nursing can be an extremely demanding profession, both emotionally and physically. Nurses can work long, unpredictable hours in a wide range of settings from emergency rooms and public health clinics to outpatient facilities and physicians’ offices. The array of cases and conditions you might experience in a given day is almost limitless. The challenging nature of the job may account for the very strong starting salary noted above. With respect to opportunities for career growth, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that Registered Nurses earned a median salary of $75,330 in 2020. However, the real story for prospective registered nurses is the ongoing availability of opportunity. At present, the employment field is growing at a rate equal to the average for all fields—9%. However, between now and 2030, the healthcare field is projected to add 276,800 new positions for registered nurses. This means that the robust entry-level salary listed above is particularly accessible to those with the compassion and temperament for the job.
10. Bachelor’s Degree in Management Information Systems
Glass Door reports that Management Information Systems bachelors will qualify to begin earning an entry-level median pay of $58,000. There is naturally a great deal of overlap between this degree program and disciplines such as computer science and information technology. But what differentiates the Management Information Systems (MIS) degree is its emphasis on the use of information systems to produce business solutions. This means you’ll apply your studies in information technology to help businesses plan strategic operations, manage supply chain challenges, identify and address cybersecurity risks, streamline database storage, or simply provide oversight of internal computing and network needs. Like most other IT and computer science-based disciplines, this one offers the opportunity to work in an extremely wide range of business contexts. As noted above in our discussion on information technology, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Computer and Information Systems Managers earned a median pay of $151,150. However, this degree could also qualify you to work as a Logistician (2020 Median Pay—$76,270); an Operations Research Manager (2020 Median Pay—$86,200); or a Computer Systems Analyst (2020 Median Pay—$93,730), to name just a few of the many roles you could qualify for with a bachelor’s degree in MIS.
Before you leap headlong into the search for your bachelor’s degree, be sure that you understand exactly what you’re looking at. Find out what those highly-publicized annual best college ranking lists really mean with a look at our feature—Can You Trust U.S. News & World Report’s College Rankings?