The Most Valuable College Major Is One You Might Not Expect

In a new survey, studied more than 162 degrees to determine the most- and least-valuable college majors. And the winner for the most valuable criteria might seem somewhat obscure to the unfamiliar reader. That major? Actuarial science.

Actuarial science, for those who don't know, focuses on the use of statistical modeling to help insurance companies and other financial services firms measure risk. In support of its findings, Bankrate used an anecdote from recent actuarial sciences grad to illustrate just how much of an advantage degree-holders have in the job market.

Landing a job after college was a breeze for Jessica Ackley. The 22-year-old received three full-time offers by the end of her first month of interviewing and ultimately secured a starting salary north of $60,000 with an international consulting firm.

"I graduated from Illinois State University in December 2017 and have been working full-time in actuarial consulting since January of this year," Ackley says.

Ackley’s success is common for those who graduate with an actuarial science degree, according to Krzysztof Ostaszewski, director of the actuarial program at Illinois State University.

"I like to say, 'Being an actuary is the best job in America because you get paid like doctors and lawyers, but you don’t have to work with blood or visit your clients in jail,'" Ostaszewski says.

The other majors that topped the list were mostly from the STEM - that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics - fields. Ideally, findings like this will encourage more students to choose these majors. Meanwhile, a smattering of liberal arts and fine arts degrees dominated the bottom of the list, with miscellaneous fine arts coming in dead last with an average income of just over $40,000 and an unemployment rate of just over 9%. Students who land a job with an arts degree often wind up as art teachers, music contractors, craft artists and illustrators. Meanwhile, business, science and math degrees claimed the first 10 spots.


During the study, Bankrate used weighted data to determine which bachelor’s degree holders were either employed or unemployed, their major and their income over the past 12 months.

Actuarial science took the top spot because students earned more on average - $108,658 - than their peers and a lower unemployment rate at 2.3%. As an added bonus, only 22% of actuarial science majors had a master’s degree or doctorate, suggesting that most graduates didn't take on more school.

As Bankrate explains, actuaries are typically the people who set insurance premiums for consumers and companies.

Actuaries are often the people to thank — or blame — for the premiums set by insurance companies. As a property and casualty actuarial analyst in Bloomington, Illinois, Ackley works to help insurance companies make sure they are pricing their products accurately and profitably, setting aside enough money to pay out potential claims and helping them sell new products or enter new markets.

"Actuarial science is great for people who are strong in math or computers — anything analytical — that want to apply it in a business setting," says Sue Vagts, director of the Actuarial Science Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"In business, you have to have good communication skills because it doesn’t matter how many problems you can solve if you can’t convert that to a business application or explain in a way people can understand," Vagts says.

However, as the study notes, having the ability to crush an excel spreadsheet isn't the only skill needed to succeed in business. One expert stressed the importance of developing "soft" skills like communication and work ethic.

The University of Connecticut advises students to think about the so-called soft skills — communication, work ethic, creative thinking, teamwork — that they can earn from their majors.

"The biggest myth we see is by choosing a major you’re basically choosing the career you have for the rest of your life," says Harry Twyman, director of The Major Experience at UConn. "Business is a good example. A lot of students think if they want to go into the business field, they have to get a business degree when in fact we’re seeing history graduates, English graduates and psychology graduates go into that field."

Of course, many humanities graduates need to get a graduate degree - typically an MBA - if they're hoping to make this type of career change.