The 5 Worst College Degrees for Your Career

Congratulations, young (and some older) people! You're going to college!

Springtime is here, and millions of aspiring scholars across the country have by now received their college acceptance letters, beginning the process that will take them through the rest of their lives. Many may not even know what major they'll pursue once they arrive on campus, and are hoping to out sort this critical part of college at some point in the next few dozen credits. But it's never too early to ponder the many degree options now available at most college campuses.

Getting a degree will undoubtedly help your chances of landing and holding a job in today's economy, but some degrees offer better prospects than others right from the start. Others, however, might hinder your long-term earnings potential for the rest of your life. The five degree paths (ranked from fifth-worst to worst) you'll see below offer the weakest salary prospects out of 130 different options reviewed by PayScale, an analytics company specializing in salary and career data. No one can tell you to abandon your passion -- but if you're not positively committed to one of these majors, then you may want to start researching other options.

5: Special Education

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $33,900
  • Median mid-career salary: $48,900
  • Employment totals: 459,600
  • Unemployment rate: 3.6%

Although demand for these specialized educators is projected to proceed at a brisk clip (another 77,400 will be needed by 2020), the notoriously stingy pay scale of American public education will keep wages depressed. Special education teachers need to work with a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional disabilities of widely varying severity, which in and of itself is a difficult mandate to place on anyone. Once weak pay and limited progression are factored in, it's clear that these jobs are labors of love for most of those employed in the field. On the plus side, unemployment in this niche appears to be lower than that in other education backgrounds, as you'll soon see.

4: Human Development

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $33,100
  • Median mid-career salary: $47,800
  • Employment totals: 281,400 (based on school counselor employment totals)
  • Unemployment rate: 8.2%

Human Development graduates are generalists in the social sciences, but the general focus of their education is on understanding the issues that people face throughout their lives. This lends itself well to counseling, but can also work in education, psychology, therapy, or other varieties of social work. Unfortunately, an undergraduate Human Development degree doesn't present a clear career track, and many social science generalists have some difficulty finding employment after graduation. Unless you really don't want to limit yourself, it might be worth considering a more specific degree path.

3: Elementary Education

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $31,400
  • Median mid-career salary: $46,000
  • Employment totals: 1,655,800
  • Unemployment rate: 13.5% 

You might think it's easy to find a job as a teacher, but education graduates are not having an easy go of it, according to Mike Konczal's 2012 analysis of majors by unemployment rate. Since schools fall under the purview of local government spending, and local governments have been laying off everyone -- including teachers -- for years, it presents a serious problem for recent graduates trying to climb into a part of the workforce in which job security is almost exclusively a function of how many years a teacher's been on the payroll. Benefits in the public school system aren't bad, but long hours, low pay, and constant stress created by demanding parents, demanding administrators, and demanding federal test requirements (though less onerous at the elementary level) all add up to a tough job. A general Education degree tends to earn a slight premium over the Elementary Education specialty, which makes it a better option except in cases where you really, really want to work with young children.

2: Social Work

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $33,100
  • Median mid-career salary: $45,300
  • Employment totals: 650,500
  • Unemployment rate: 13.5%

Social workers also fall under the broad category of high-unemployment majors in Konczal's data, but at least the field is projected to add to its numbers at a faster clip than the national average (161,200 new social workers will be needed by 2020). The trend in this list is obvious now -- majors that focus on assisting and educating others are low on the paycheck totem pole. Social workers have more options available than educators, though, and may find employment in hospitals, schools, clinics, or in private practice. Like educators, social workers are often expected to work long hours and weekends, making their salary even less appealing on an hour-by-hour basis than it already is. Many social workers go on to get a master's degree, but this only serves to push median salaries up by about $10,000 per year.

1: Child and Family Studies

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Median starting salary: $29,300
  • Median mid-career salary: $37,700
  • Employment totals: 1,282,300
  • Unemployment rate: 13.5% 

Child and Family Studies majors can look forward to career paths likely to lead to the same basic places as those highlighted in the past four careers, but with less money. Day-care employers are frequently cited as the endgame for this major, but this profession pays worse than a job in the public school system and rarely comes with the same level of benefits. The Child and Family Studies major offers all of the weaknesses of a career in youth education and care with none of the apparent benefits of being a generalist. Unless you're really committed to the idea of working in a day care center as a career, you're better off going after any other degree your school has to offer.

Where the jobs are (and aren't)
There are plenty of reasons to get a degree besides the simple desire to make money. After all, the business world is full of individuals who've reached the highest levels with a degree that ranks in the middle, or even in the lower reaches, of PayScale's scale. Ultimately, the choice of a degree program should be based on a variety of factors, not least of which should be your desire to work with that knowledge for years and years to come.

If you'd like to see the full list of 130 majors by salary potential, click here. Please feel free to share your thoughts on these majors by leaving a comment below.

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  • Report this Comment On April 30, 2013, at 11:27 PM, Jmovies wrote:

    I have to disagree with the author. I have one of the professions listed above and earn WELL over the median salary (and this is my first year in this job). All of these Internet articles are posted about the best and worst jobs and they all contradict one another. I just saw an article last month about the 10 best jobs and "special education teacher" was on that list. Who do we believe?

  • Report this Comment On May 01, 2013, at 8:44 AM, Beancounter25 wrote:

    Hotel Administration is the worst. I had good grades, etc...and ended up as a front desk clerk for $6.25 an hour (20 years ago). I went back to school for a degree in Accounting and became a CPA and got a job in the Energy Sector. It was the best move I ever made! Unless your Daddy owns the company, you'll sleep with anyone, or you know where the body is buried (literally, especially in Las Vegas) you have no hope in getting ahead, or you will always work for peanuts.

  • Report this Comment On May 01, 2013, at 10:11 AM, noryakerson wrote:

    These are 5 extremely important career paths and I would not discourage anyone from persuing one of them. Money is always a factor, but some of these statistics don't ring true for me. I have to agree with the first poster too, I've seen a lot of contradictory information on the net. If you're interested in one of these fields, make sure you talk to individuals in the profession to get the real scoop.

  • Report this Comment On May 01, 2013, at 10:14 AM, Scarlet527 wrote:

    The level to which these "human kindness, human concern, and human compassion" have become the "worse education degrees" compares to the narcissistic, greedy, materialistic, existential, techno-business-environmentally anti-natural, anti-human, anti-empathetic, success at any cost driven, corporatized fascist institutional directed western degenerate, societally decadent police state sponsored educational system, pushed to the extreme, like every thing in this morally bankrupt existence.

  • Report this Comment On May 01, 2013, at 11:35 AM, mdk0611 wrote:

    Wow - Talk about a run on sentence. I hope you don't teach middle school English.

  • Report this Comment On May 01, 2013, at 11:48 AM, miteycasey wrote:

    The 5 Worst College Degrees for Your Career???

    Only if making lots of money money and a high standard of living are important to you.

  • Report this Comment On May 01, 2013, at 1:25 PM, WarrenKiesel wrote:

    This article is just not accurate. Both special education and elementary education professionals make really good money, and get ridiculous time off. Totally jealous of my sister who is an elementary school principal, she makes almost 100 grand is always on some kind of break.

  • Report this Comment On May 02, 2013, at 1:07 PM, TMFBreakerRob wrote:

    Jmovies: "I have to disagree with the author. I have one of the professions listed above and earn WELL over the median salary (and this is my first year in this job)."

    Time to review what "median" means. ;) Recognize that "time on job" is not the only determining factor. Pay scales vary from region to region.

  • Report this Comment On May 02, 2013, at 1:09 PM, TMFBreakerRob wrote:

    WarrenKiesel: "This article is just not accurate. Both special education and elementary education professionals make really good money, and get ridiculous time off. Totally jealous of my sister who is an elementary school principal, she makes almost 100 grand is always on some kind of break."

    Note that "elementary school principal" is not on the list of low paying jobs. Principals are paid considerably more than the teachers under them.

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