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Here Are the Most Popular College Degrees – Too Bad They’re Not the Most Valuable

As U.S. colleges and universities launch hundreds of thousands of new graduates into the world, many are seguing directly into new careers, while others will join the ranks of the job seeker. Of the latter group, some will find success fairly quickly in their search for educationally appropriate work, while others will not.

Why do some graduates find the job of their dreams, while others languish in a state of underemployment – or, worse, unemployment? As you may expect, much has to do with the actual diploma attained by these graduates. Some are in fields that are in demand, while too many others are not.

A disparity between popularity and utility
Comparing the number of college degrees bestowed with the type of career track that would essentially guarantee an ambitious graduate a job right out of college shows an immediate problem: the two simply don't match up.

The U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics is a wealth of information about the types of degrees American students choose to pursue. With data going back to the early 1970s, it is easy to see that, despite evidence that degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have become more highly valued over the past few years, the number of degrees awarded has not risen along with demand.

Conversely, degrees in the liberal arts are less desired by employers, yet students still pursue diplomas in this area, represented in the chart below by the designation "humanities":

Percentage, by Discipline, of Total U.S. Bachelor's Degrees Awarded by Year

Academic Year

Humanities (Liberal Arts)

Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Computer Science and Engineering



























Source: Dept. of Education

Even the high number of business degrees awarded is surprising, considering the fact that the Great Recession wiped out nearly a half-million financial sector positions thus far. Still, 18% of employers are looking for applicants with such a degree, compared with only 2% who are actively seeking liberal arts graduates.

STEM jobs rule
On the other hand, 27% of employers have noted that engineering and computer science graduates are the type of employee they want to hire these days, and this view is apparently shared by other companies, as well. PayScale has a list of the top 10 college majors with the greatest compensation potential, and each one is in engineering, computer science, or math.

Petroleum engineering tops the list, with income potential of $160,000 after 15 years in the industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a median pay of $130,000 in 2012, with a stellar job outlook through 2022.

Similarly, actuarial mathematics paid a median of $93,680 in 2012, with the same excellent job outlook as petroleum engineering. PayScale puts the mid-career salary at $120,000. 

Computer engineering jobs are hot, as well. Computer engineers can make well over $100,000 by mid-career, although the BLS notes that these particular jobs are not experiencing a lot of growth. Other computer science jobs, such as computer and information systems managers, are experiencing much faster growth – and pay a median salary of nearly $121,000 annually. 

It is difficult to understand why STEM degrees are not being more heavily pursued, while others that are much less lucrative continue to experience high popularity among college students.

Hopefully, statistics like these will prove the value of doing some homework before choosing a college and career track – resulting in better job matches between the educated and in-demand, well-paying jobs in the future.

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Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (17)

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  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 10:43 AM, abbydeare wrote:

    "It is difficult to understand why STEM degrees are not being more heavily pursued, while others that are much less lucrative continue to experience high popularity among college students."

    Because, unfortunately, kids today see these kinds of jobs as boring.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 11:02 AM, carolg10000 wrote:

    stem is much harder than lib arts. also... many were raised on 'follow your dream' and the idea that college 'expands your horizons'. I still hear people in later years still touting personal growth. they haven't come to terms with the idea that, perhaps, being employable will expand the horizons even more.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 11:55 AM, desertmusic wrote:

    Since when did college become job training to the exclusion of becoming broadly educated? What good are wealth and "success" when so many don't know the difference between right and wrong, nor understand anything about the world around us?

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 12:55 PM, musumbee121 wrote:

    Just what you would expect from a Wall Street-sympathetic website like the motley fool. What they are not telling you about the STEM jobs is that they are slowly being transferred to foreigners through a friendly version of outsourcing called the H1-B visa. Don't believe the thing about the STEM shortage, its a myth. The amount of STEM graduates that come out of US universities is more than enough to fill positions in the US labor markets requiring such skills. With H1-B workers corporations and other business can pay them $20,000 less for the same amount of work. The way they up the ante with this STEM shortage is that there is a 'great demand' that is all you will ever hear is about this 'great demand'. What they'll never tell you is that this demand can be met. And the reason students don't pursue STEM is that a lot of it is Medicine and medical which is a humongous time commitment. And the reason they don't pursue things like engineering is that the US public school system doesn't prepare students for the type of laborious work required in such subjects of study. On top of that most public universities are what I like to call corporate universities. There are classes as large as 300 students with only one teacher and therefore a student is nothing but a number that the school gets money from, if he walks or falls doesn't matter to the professor. He gets paid anyway and he is not there to teach just to do research for corporations that pay the university. So even those interested in such subjects as engineering can only succeed through might of will for there is very little outside help. Sorry about the rant.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 1:00 PM, MissDisplaced wrote:

    I think the reason most STEM jobs are not being pursued is because to actually work in a scientific field, you need your PhD at MINIMUM just to work in their field.

    That's a LONG and expensive road to go down, and many kids aren't even sure at 18 whether or not they will like it.

    With a good liberal arts degree, such as communications, you can diverge into many fields later depending on your interest AND no PhD is required just to start working. Plus a liberal arts degree IS STILL a good base for many other advanced degrees and professions such as law or business.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 1:27 PM, Consultant wrote:

    "I think the reason most STEM jobs are not being pursued is need your PhD at MINIMUM just to work in the field".

    Not at all true. Many people in STEM jobs, especially computer science and engineering, are hired after graduating from college. The problem is that more corporations are hiring people from abroad, esp. from India where they are sponsored a working visa and are paid lower wage. This unfortunately is becoming the trend. Also, these jobs are really full of stress, despite high salary. Some say this is another reason why employers are looking abroad. Sorry for saying this but employers perceive many young Americans as lacking perseverance and will easily throw in the towel, compared to people from Asia.

    I do however agree with the statement, "a liberal arts degree is still a good base for many other advanced degrees and professions such as law or business".

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 1:57 PM, WalkingMan wrote:

    Let's see. Does money control you or do you control money?

    Keep chomping. Sooner or later, the carrot will show up.

    Baaa. Baaa. Baaa, Baaa.

    Get on your Marx.

    Get set.


  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 2:20 PM, BlueVinton wrote:

    I really try to avoid reading the public comments because they are often dominated by sloppy writing and even sloppier thinking. And, almost always, the comments degenerate into vile race-baiting and xenophobia. I truly wish more sites would simply stop offering public comments areas (like Popular Science).

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 2:41 PM, axiomatic wrote:

    Just look at all the misinformation in these comments and you'll see one reason why more people dont pursue STEM careers. I am a civil engineer and I would say half the people I work with have Master's degrees, and the other half only have Bachelor's. Experience, and more importantly, a professional license are far more valuable in engineering than an advanced degree. I've never worked with anyone that has a PhD. I dont know where people are getting information on job outsourcing, particularly in engineering, as most firms require at minimum an EIT license in the state you'll be working... people from India on H1-B visas just wont be able to do it.

    I think the point has been missed entirely. The reason STEM careers arent being pursued more is simple statistics. Half the US population just simply isnt very good at math and science. Of the half that are good at it, half of them simply dont want to do anything with it. And only half of the ones that want to do something with it will go into a STEM field... the numbers seem fine to me.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 3:18 PM, Taz wrote:

    I was most fortunate. I graduated in 1969 and began my computer programming career ending it in management some 32 years later. During that time I had my share of changing jobs due to economic conditions and I had to move several times to stay employed but it was a good career and I earned above average money - enough that I could retire at 56 and have no money worries. I would not, however, recommend that same career to my kids because it is too easy for companies these days to replace someone or outsource the work (even at the cost of it being done incorrectly). Instead, I would look for a job that cannot be outsourced, provides steady employment and pays enough to live comfortably. Today's world is not the same as in 1969 unfortunately.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 3:20 PM, MiguelPCortes wrote:

    Skip an expensive four year degree and become your own Kingpin.

    Take the nine (9) Data Analysis tract through Johns Hopkins University through Coursera.

    FREE or if you want a Certificate, it will set you back a relatively inexpensive $450 total for the entire program.

    Then land a Data Analysis job and take your Data Analysis to a higher level by taking the eight (8) Data Analysis classes at Udacity. This will set you back about $3,000.

    Then take the seven (7) Computer Science classes at MIT through EdX. This will set you back about $450 total for the entire tract.

    Then take the four (4) classes in the Cybersecurity tract at the University of Maryland through Coursera. About $245 for the entire tract.

    Then continue taking various free tech classes at Udacity, EdX, Coursera, FutureLearn etc.

    Then be your own Kingpin by creating a new industry or take over an industry.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 5:00 PM, danb63112 wrote:

    I decided to take the advice of the many pundits and got a bachelors in physics. Then I got a PhD in a computational science. Guess what liberal arts majors? There doesn't seem to be any jobs for me either, so don't feel bad. Get the degree you want, enjoy college. Learn something. It's a crap-shoot either way.

  • Report this Comment On June 01, 2014, at 8:48 PM, NoProblem wrote:

    i teach in a STEM field and my 2 year students make $30 an hour. For the non-STEM people that works out to be about $61,000 straight time or well over $100,000 if they suck up the overtime.

    They work as highly skilled industrial mechanics and yes they get their hands dirty. They don't get to wear a suit at work but they are allowed to "laugh all the way to the bank" at the people that are considered "professionals". Heck most of them make more than me after a few short years.

    I think people don't do STEM because they want the easy way out. Engineering or Engineering Technology, in my students case, is difficult but the job security and pay has remained high. I can only remember 2 or 3 of my students in the past 15 years that were still looking for a job (in field) after 6 months.

  • Report this Comment On June 02, 2014, at 2:04 PM, dbtuner wrote:

    only 80K people graduate with Computer Science on engineering degrees every year. I can't see how that os more than enough to fulfill all the need. some of those are foreigners who leave the country.

    The H1-B only number something like another 75K. some of those are replacements for former H1-B's that go back to their country.

    Something like 10,000 engineers retire every year just from the DoD.

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