Which College Degrees Get The Highest Salaries?

If you’re a college graduate, you likely went to school to pursue an important passion of yours.

But as we all know, what we major in has consequences that extend far beyond the foundation of knowledge we build in our early years. As  Visual Capitalist's Jeff Desjardins notes, any program we choose to enroll in also sets up a track to meet future friends, career opportunities, and connections.

Even further, the college degree you choose will partially dictate your future earning potential – especially in the first decade after school. If jobs in your field are in high demand, it can even set you up for long-term financial success, enabling you to pay off costly student loans and build up savings potential.


Today’s chart comes to us from Reddit user /r/SportsAnalyticsGuy, and it’s based on PayScale’s year-long survey of 1.2 million users that graduated only with a bachelor degree in the United States. You can access the full set of data here.

The data covers two different salary categories:

Starting median salary: The median of what people were earning after they graduated with their degree.

Mid-career Percentiles: Salary data from 10 years after graduation, sorted by percentile (10th, 25th, Median, 75th, and 90th)

In other words, the starting median salary represents what people started making after they graduated, and the rest of the chart depicts the range that people were making 10 years after they got their degree. Lower earners (10th percentile) are the lower bound, and higher earners (90th) are the upper bound.


What college majors win out?

Here’s the top 20 majors from the data set, sorted by mid-career median salary (10 years in):

Based on this data, there are a few interesting things to point out.

The top earning specialization out of college is for Physician Assistants, with a median starting salary of $74,300. The downside of this degree is that earning potential levels out quickly, only showing a 23.4% increase in earning power 10 years in.

In contrast, the biggest increases in earning power go to Math, Philosophy, Economics, Marketing, Physics, Political Science, and International Relations majors. All these degrees see a 90% or higher increase from median starting salary to median mid-career salary.

In absolute terms, the majors that saw the highest median mid-career salaries were all along the engineering spectrum: chemical engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, and aerospace engineering all came in above $100,000. They also generally had very high starting salaries.

As a final note, it’s important to recognize that this data does not necessarily correlate to today’s degrees or job market. The data set is based on people that graduated at least a decade ago – and therefore, it does not necessarily represent what grads may experience as they are starting their careers today.


erkme73 BetterOffDead Fri, 07/27/2018 - 22:41 Permalink

Wife finished med school in 2007.  Residency in 2010.  Start pay was $150/hr at a level 1 trauma center.  Moved to stix in middle-TN where biggest hospital isn't even trauma rated, and they're paying $215/hr.  We paid her tuition as we went - all but for the last year, so little to no debt.   Today, 100% of her income pays direct expenses or is discretionary.   Zero debt.  It can be done.  Requires focus, determination, and self-sacrifice.  Nothing today's millennials have.

In reply to by BetterOffDead

CheapBastard erkme73 Fri, 07/27/2018 - 22:54 Permalink

Congrats to her. It requires not only brain power but lots of physical stamina also. I watched a relative go though all that and admire the physical part of that long haul also--the long hours and what they call "all-nighters" he said.

In my opinion, docs deserve the decent salaries most of the time to help pay for the years and years of hard work and put up with all the government regulation and BS paperwork.


In reply to by erkme73

erkme73 CheapBastard Sun, 07/29/2018 - 08:50 Permalink

You are not woofing.  It is a grueling process.  It amazes me that despite the level of intense pressure, so many incompetent doctors still manage to graduate.   You'd think they'd be the first ones to burn out or get bounced.  But, as with so many other corrupt aspects in life, medical schools compete for the highest matriculation rates - and for every slot that doesn't complete, it looks bad on their stats - so they do whatever they have to, to make sure to push them through.

In reply to by CheapBastard

Ajas erkme73 Sat, 07/28/2018 - 00:38 Permalink

I've honestly worked with a lot more lazy Gen-Xers who "failed up" than lazy Millennials.

It could just be the exuberance of youth vs 20 years waning adaptability in the tech industry. But the crop of 28-35 year olds -- the leading edge of the millennials -- have been excellent workers from what I've seen.

In reply to by erkme73

venturen erkme73 Sat, 07/28/2018 - 08:16 Permalink

I know a number of Chemical and other engineers....you get paid a high starting salary....and will receive 2% raises....and will retire maybe making what a starting wall street intern makes. If you are smart....become and xray doc....make a million a year or wall street flunky....just show up to work make $1/2 Million a year. 


Engineering is for those that love it....few ever make good money

In reply to by erkme73

afronaut erkme73 Sat, 07/28/2018 - 11:24 Permalink

Today they get in based on affirmative action. They want less white male doctors. More black/  female doctors. A black or native can get into medicine with a 72% average. A white or oriental male needs to be in the high 80s minimum

In reply to by erkme73

hyperinflationdan BetterOffDead Sat, 07/28/2018 - 16:00 Permalink

maybe u don't understand what the discipline entails?   try reading:  kant, leibniz, heidegger or hegel.  what is the difference between epistemology, phenomenology, ontology, dialectics and other branches of philosophy?   which careers place a value on critical thinking?  what value might there be in being able to clearly write and express complex ideas?        and yes,  i do have a degree in philosophy   :-)

In reply to by BetterOffDead

Branded NoDebt Fri, 07/27/2018 - 23:39 Permalink

No fucking way an economics degree performs like that, either undergrad or grad.

It's a fucking social science dressed-up with math & graphs - business for the ungifted in finance.

Came out with an MBA 20 years ago making $80K out of the gate, base, before incentives package.

Economics couldn't touch that shit without being connected or ivy league, or both.

The whole chart is suspect, or something out of the 80s.

In reply to by NoDebt

NoDebt Branded Sat, 07/28/2018 - 07:29 Permalink

Worked just fine for me.  Notice how wide the spread is on those income bands.  There are a small number of economists who make megabucks and lots who make so-so money.  It drags the averages up.  I don't directly use my degree in my chosen profession but I wouldn't have gotten where I am without it.  It's just a key that unlocks a door.

I agree with your assessment of it being a social science dressed up with math & graphs.  It totally is (and I've said so myself on ZH many times).  But they usually teach it in business schools as opposed to liberal arts schools.  People probably give econ more credit than it's due partly for that reason, but... real or fake, they give it credit.  Also, most of your top-tier economists have more than just an econ degree, too.


In reply to by Branded

nmewn helltothenah Fri, 07/27/2018 - 21:52 Permalink

I would say, teaching people to not be a sucker is worth it's weight in gold for any future endeavor. Trump University was never an "accredited university" yet, Hawwwvahd & Princeton etc are and still they persist as the "gold standard" after all the societal and economic rot? 

In reply to by helltothenah

MoreFreedom Scotch-n-Soda Sat, 07/28/2018 - 12:02 Permalink

Ummmm, where is Womens Studies and Race Gender Studies?  

Like professional sports, there are few jobs available for such graduates, the jobs being mostly to teach/propagandize at universities for the universities' liberal customers (Democrat politicians who fund the universities).  What's surprising to me, is what motivates women (because men aren't welcomed as Woman's Studies students) to choose such a major.  Many women attend a university to get a MRS degree from some guy with a promising future, but Woman's Studies would seem to be contrary to that.  Maybe it's the ugly envious ones who choose that self-defeating destructive path: destructive to their personal and financial futures.  If my daughter choose such a major, I'd do everything I could to ensure it didn't happen.

In reply to by Scotch-n-Soda

cpnscarlet Fri, 07/27/2018 - 21:30 Permalink

Let's hear it for ENGINEERING! No bloody operations and over-prescribed drugs, no shysters chasing ambulances, no indoctrinating socialists, and no schmoozing politics...

It just works or it doesn't - case closed.

FULL DISCLOSURE - I am a rocket scientist and much smarter than you are.  ;-)

A wind is rising Fri, 07/27/2018 - 21:33 Permalink

The lowest rank, looking at the average pay (green bars), is still above $50k - about half of the highest average pay.  Still, $50k annual income is not a subsistence level.  Surely these figures support the belief in obtaining a college education.