Which College Major Pays The Highest Mid-Career Salary? We Have The Data

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It’s likely news to no one that while a college degree is still necessary for many of the most sought-after careers, paying for it is increasingly difficult. Tuitions are already high and getting higher, and more than half of college grads could have trouble paying back their student loans.

In fact, a student’s major could have a greater impact on paying back those student loans than the college students choose to attend, according to Payscale, which collects salary data from individuals through online pay comparison tools.

So what college majors have the best pay potential these days? Think anything STEM – science, technology, engineering, and math. According to Payscale’s annual College Salary Report, STEM majors continue to have among the largest mid-career salaries of all the college majors.

Petroleum engineering is the daddy of them all, topping the survey for the third year in a row as the most lucrative college major.


Payscale’s annual salary report is based on a survey of 3.5 million respondents from more than 4,000 United States-based colleges and universities. In all, it ranks 827 different college majors. (For what it’s worth, Metalsmithing is the least lucrative major with a starting and mid-career salary around $40K.)

While Payscale ranks its majors by mid-career pay, Petroleum Engineering majors also have the highest early career pay at $93,200 – down $1,300 from 2019. However, by the middle of their careers, Payscale respondents claim to be making $187,300, which is $10,400 more than they reported three years ago.

Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority of the top 25 majors are STEM related. Business-related fields are also highly represented, adding to what Poets&Quants For Undergrads has long reported: Business-related degrees continue to be a good investment, though some more so than others.

The highest ranking major with a direct correlation to business school and education is public accounting, ranked at No. 5. Respondents reported a starting salary of $59,800 and a mid-career salary of $147,700. Operations Research follows at No. 6, Applied Economics and Management at No. 7, and Business Computing at No. 8.

While a more traditional business degree can offer more career flexibility, specializing in a business-related major can pay dividends in both early career and mid-career salary. The standard Business & Economics degree comes in 88th. Though the degree has fallen 10 places in the rank over the last three years, both its early and mid-career salaries have risen since 2019. Early career salary is up 7.4% to $59,600 (compared to $55,500 in 2019) and its mid-career average is up 5.1% to $116,200.

The table below shows the top 10 business-related fields in the Payscale’s mid-career salary ranking.


Payscale also asked alumni if they thought their work made the world a better place, which is defined in the chart below as “% High Meaning.” Many of the majors with the highest meaning are among the lowest paid. Music therapy majors (ranked 755 for mid-career salary), for example, led the category with 93% saying their work made the world better, but they made just $60,700 by mid-career. Medicine (ranked 130 overall) followed at 92%, making $109,200.

Not surprisingly, 9 of the top 10 careers rated highest for meaning were all related to health and therapy. American Sign Language Interpretation (518th overal) as the lone exception. Its alumni rated it at 87% in “high meaning. The table below summarizes the 10 majors with the highest meaning impact.

At the other end is a familiar business major in International Marketing, where only 22% of responding alumni believe their work makes the world a better place. Other business-related majors to score low on meaning include Food Marketing at 24% and international trade and marketing at 27%. The business major with the highest meaning percentage is business and healthcare management at 69%.

NEXT PAGE: Payscale’s 100 Highest Paying Jobs With A Bachelor’s Degree

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