3 Best Majors for the Money

These majors bring home the big bucks.

Justin Loiseau
Justin Loiseau
Jun 25, 2015 at 12:34PM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

Source: unc.edu 

People go to school for a lot of reasons. Money is sometimes one of them. It certainly can't hurt. Here are the three best majors for the money, as well as some smart advice on making the most of them.

What's a Major Worth?
Google "best majors for the money" and you'll be inundated with lists. But few reach as far and wide as a Georgetown University report on the economic value of 171 undergraduate majors. Overall, the report finds that an average degree-holder can expect to earn 84% more over her lifetime than a high school graduating counterpart.

That's an alarmingly large difference. But despite the nearly double earnings that college grads enjoy, it's equally true that many degrees simply don't deliver dollars. If you're looking for the best majors for the money, here are the three big money-makers.

1. Petroleum Engineering 

Source: Wikimedia Commons; Joshua Doubek 

Petroleum engineer majors earn major money — a graduate can expect to snag $120,000 a year. These are the people who decide whether and how to pull fossil fuels from reservoirs. Extracting oil and gas is expensive, and E&P companies compensate their employees, accordingly.

But ladies, there's a catch. When the researchers behind this study compared male to female earnings for petroleum engineers, the sample size for women was so small that they couldn't accurately estimate female earnings. The same holds true for every non-white race and ethnicity category, providing an unfortunately accurate picture that the best major for the money has been almost exclusively a white male major. 

2. Pharmaceutical Sciences 

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Source: Wikimedia commons; FlickreviewR 

If you can settle for just $105,000 per year, pharmaceutical sciences might be the major for you. Unlike petroleum engineering, pharmaceutical science majors enjoy a more even gender gap — 42% are women and 58% are men. It's the highest-paid major among women. Unfortunately, arbitrary earnings differences exist here, too. With $110,000 median earnings, men take home an extra $10,000 per year compared to women But for risk-averse earnings, pharmaceutical sciences has some of the steadiest earnings around — those at the 25th percentile still rake in $83,000. The same percentile for petroleum engineers grabs just $82,000. 

3. Mathematics and Computer Science 

Source: Flickr; sloth_rider 

Numbers nerds, unite. If calculus and coding are your cups of tea, you'll enjoy median annual earnings of $98,000. This may be one of the best majors for the money, but it's also one of the least popular — less than 0.01% of college grads majored in mathematics and computer science. 

But despite the high earnings potential, 99.99% of the population may be smarter than you think to decline the pursuit of this degree. Unfortunately, a major in mathematics and computer science doesn't work out for everyone. This degree also makes it on to the top 10 list for highest unemployment rates. A whopping 10% of these majors are sitting on someone's couch crunching potato chips instead of numbers. 

Pick for profit?
So why isn't everyone a petroleum engineer? Turns out, there's a surprisingly simple reason. It's not the major that makes the money — it's you. For every major out there, there's a specific type of person that's attracted to it. It could be personal interest, prior qualifications, or an allure to the professional perks of that degree. Certainly, some students may major in petroleum engineering because they want the best major for the money. But they also might pursue petroleum engineering because they like puzzles and love machines.

Ultimately, the best major for the money is the one you want to pursue. Similar to investing, you've got to believe in your degree to truly extract value from it. Stocks are similar. Investing in something you don't understand and don't support is a disaster waiting to happen. Picking a major for the wrong reasons can be an incredibly expensive mistake, costing you thousands of dollars and years of your life. Not everyone has to be an engineer, and not everyone wants to pursue the best major for the money. Make your pick, accordingly, and enjoy whichever academic adventure awaits you.