College degrees measured by a scale
Photos by Adobe/Illustration by Bankrate

Avoiding calculus and chemistry classes in college could cost grads in the long run.

Grads with degrees in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — typically earn much more and are less likely to be unemployed.

Naval architecture and marine engineering takes the top spot on the list of most valuable college majors, according to a Bankrate study of 162 degrees. Drama and theater arts, on the other hand, is the least valuable, at least in terms of making a living after graduation.

College majors. Most valuable: Naval architecture and marine engineering; nuclear engineering; pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences and administration; genetics; and electrical engineering. Least valuable: Drama and theatre arts; visual and performing arts; composition and rhetoric; longuistics and comparative language and literature; and fine arts. Source: 2019 Bankrate's ranking of the most and least valuable college majors.

For the study, Bankrate looked at the median incomes and unemployment rates of people based on which bachelor’s degree they obtained in college. We also factored in how many people in each group obtained a higher degree, such as a master’s degree or doctoral degree, knowing additional schooling typically requires more time and money. Full details on our methodology can be found below.

STEM majors are most valuable

Engineering degrees claimed seven of the top 10 spots in Bankate’s study. Naval architecture and marine engineering floated to No. 1 based on salaries that grads were typically able to earn and ease of landing a job.

The overall median income for those trained to build, design and maintain ships and marine vessels was $90,000, the data show. And less than 2 percent of degree holders were unemployed.

Nuclear engineering came in as second-most valuable followed by pharmaceutical sciences and administration, genetics and electrical engineering. These majors had unemployment rates ranging from 1.2 percent to 2.7 percent and median incomes of at least $85,000.

For comparison, the median income for all those with a bachelor’s degree was $55,000 and the unemployment rate was 2.8 percent, according to the data Bankrate analyzed.

University of Michigan student Anika Szuszman, National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. intern, in front of the Matson, Lurline that will sail the West Coast.

A University of Michigan student and National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. intern in front of the Matson, Lurline that will sail the West Coast.

Courtesy of the University of Michigan College of Engineering

Michael Sypniewski feels confident about entering the workforce after graduating with his doctorate in naval architecture and marine engineering earlier this month from the University of Michigan. The 28-year-old obtained his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in the field from Michigan’s College of Engineering in 2014 and 2015.

“I was interested and enjoyed it. Those are the main reasons I’ve stuck with naval architecture and marine engineering,” he says. “However, if there weren’t any career opportunities or there weren’t good ones, I may have picked a different major.”

Sypniewski doesn’t have much to worry about. Employment of marine engineers and naval architects is projected to grow 12 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The field is growing faster than the average for all occupations largely because of the demand for environmentally friendly ships and systems to transport energy products, such as liquefied natural gas, across the globe, according to BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook.

STEM fields overall are expected to provide more opportunities and be more lucrative than average in the years ahead, government research shows.

Art majors are least valuable

The stage isn’t set quite as nicely for those with a degree in the arts. Art majors claim six of the bottom spots on Bankrate’s ranking.

Drama and theater arts, in particular, came in as the least valuable major largely because more than 5 percent of degree holders were unemployed and the median income for degree holders was $35,500.

Visual and performing arts was the second-least valuable degree just behind composition and rhetoric, linguistics and comparative language and literature and fine arts. These majors had unemployment rates above 3.5 percent and median incomes below $45,000.

People shouldn’t pick their college major solely based on income, unemployment rate and the amount of schooling required. Students and their families have to decide what’s best for them and consider going into industries with lower pay and higher unemployment rates might require additional work to be a competitive candidate and achieve certain financial milestones.

Despite the hype, STEM degrees won’t be for everyone, says Kerri Wakefield, director of the Engineering Advising Center at the University of Michigan.

“Some students feel an inordinate amount of pressure to get an engineering degree, for example, because they know they’ll likely have a nice salary on the other end,” Wakefield says. “Ultimately, we want students to land in a major that’s a good fit for their interests, strengths and goals.”

Students often work harder and are more fulfilled when they’re studying a topic that’s interesting to them, she says.

Kate Culligan, a career strategist and performance coach based in Denver, says the candidates with best opportunity at getting hired have done internships, have working experience and acquired skills.

“The more hands-on experience you get, the more employable you are regardless of what education you get,” she says. “Employers look at your skills.”

Making the college major decision

In general, research shows that earning a college degree still pays off in the long run even considering the rising costs. Students can take steps to make sure their investment in their education is worth it, says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst.

“Consider community college for the first couple of years before transferring to a university for the final years of the program,” McBride says. “Look for scholarships, grants and work study programs — all of which could defray the out-of-pocket costs of a degree. And calibrate the cost of the school with your earning potential at the other end.”

Living expenses often get overlooked. But students, like the rest of us, could save money by shopping around for an apartment or taking on roommates rather than living alone.

Fifty-four percent of young adults who attended college incurred at least some debt from their education, according to research from the Federal Reserve. The typical amount of outstanding education debt was between $20,000 and $24,999 in 2018.

Education debt often leads to delaying financial milestones like buying a home and building an emergency savings fund.

Repaying loans from banks and private lenders should be a priority to avoid unfavorable interest rates and fees. But grads who qualified for loans from the federal government might have more flexibility given the lower interest rates, income-based repayment plans and other options, McBride says.

“I’m going to say something that’s very unconventional: I don’t think there’s any rush to pay down your federal loans. Make the minimum payment and shove the extra money in your 401(k) instead,” he says. “Every dollar you put away in 20s could be $15 by the time you retire.”

Most to least valuable college majors
Rank Declared degree Median income Unemployment rate Percent with advanced degree
1 Naval Architecture And Marine Engineering $90,000 1.6% 29%
2 Nuclear Engineering $98,100 1.8% 56%
3 Pharmacy Pharmaceutical Sciences And Administration $100,000 2.2% 58%
4 Genetics $85,000 1.2% 76%
5 Electrical Engineering $99,000 2.7% 46%
6 Architectural Engineering $74,000 1.5% 29%
7 Aerospace Engineering $90,000 2.3% 49%
8 Computer Engineering $92,000 2.8% 40%
8 Electrical Engineering Technology $76,000 1.8% 30%
10 Materials Science $90,000 2.0% 66%
11 Engineering And Industrial Management $72,600 1.3% 34%
12 General Engineering $80,000 2.4% 37%
13 Applied Mathematics $78,200 1.8% 49%
14 Construction Services $70,000 1.9% 11%
14 Transportation Sciences And Technologies $72,000 2.2% 20%
16 Mechanical Engineering $88,000 3.0% 39%
17 Management Information Systems And Statistics $80,000 2.9% 25%
18 Computer Science $87,000 3.1% 32%
19 Atmospheric Sciences And Meteorology $70,100 0.6% 45%
20 Civil Engineering $80,000 2.7% 39%
21 Chemical Engineering $88,000 3.0% 46%
22 Miscellaneous Engineering Technologies $70,000 2.1% 21%
23 Finance $75,000 2.9% 29%
24 Mathematics And Computer Science $99,000 4.5% 40%
25 Health And Medical Preparatory Programs $74,000 1.7% 78%
26 Industrial And Manufacturing Engineering $80,000 3.1% 37%
27 Nursing $64,000 1.5% 26%
28 Geosciences $69,700 0.9% 56%
29 Statistics And Decision Science $78,700 2.8% 51%
30 Engineering Mechanics Physics And Science $84,300 3.3% 55%
31 Actuarial Science $80,000 5.1% 16%
32 Petroleum Engineering $87,600 7.5% 30%
33 Information Sciences $75,600 3.3% 29%
34 Miscellaneous Engineering $72,000 2.9% 33%
35 Biological Engineering $65,000 1.6% 44%
36 Computer And Information Systems $71,000 3.1% 25%
37 Zoology $67,000 1.5% 66%
38 Business Economics $68,000 2.7% 29%
39 Chemistry $72,000 2.6% 63%
40 Mechanical Engineering Related Technologies $65,800 3.0% 21%
41 Operations Logistics And E-Commerce $64,000 2.8% 22%
42 Biochemical Sciences $68,000 2.2% 64%
43 Economics $74,000 3.4% 43%
44 Accounting $63,000 2.5% 29%
45 Medical Technologies Technicians $60,000 1.8% 25%
46 Industrial Production Technologies $71,000 4.2% 21%
47 Physics $80,000 3.6% 66%
48 Environmental Engineering $70,000 3.0% 48%
49 Materials Engineering And Materials Science $78,800 6.6% 47%
50 Computer Programming And Data Processing $66,700 3.5% 21%
51 Agricultural Economics $55,000 0.7% 25%
52 Political Science And Government $65,000 2.6% 51%
53 Molecular Biology $63,000 2.1% 64%
54 Mathematics $65,000 2.9% 51%
55 Food Science $60,000 2.1% 41%
56 Computer Networking And Telecommunications $60,000 2.9% 20%
57 General Business $60,000 2.7% 23%
58 Biomedical Engineering $68,000 3.4% 55%
59 Engineering Technologies $60,000 3.0% 25%
60 Forestry $55,000 2.1% 27%
61 Educational Administration And Supervision $60,000 1.8% 90%
62 Architecture $60,000 2.9% 36%
63 Public Administration $58,000 2.3% 49%
64 Marketing And Marketing Research $55,000 2.7% 17%
65 Treatment Therapy Professions $55,000 1.9% 44%
66 Physiology $60,000 2.3% 60%
67 Business Management And Administration $58,000 3.2% 24%
68 Miscellaneous Business & Medical Administration $52,000 2.5% 20%
69 Microbiology $63,000 3.3% 58%
70 Biology $60,000 2.7% 59%
71 Communication Disorders Sciences And Services $52,000 1.1% 77%
72 Computer Administration Management And Security $60,000 3.8% 20%
73 International Business $55,000 2.7% 32%
74 Multi-Disciplinary Or General Science $57,000 3.1% 36%
75 Oceanography $60,000 3.3% 41%
76 Miscellaneous Biology $52,000 2.4% 52%
77 Human Resources And Personnel Management $55,000 3.3% 30%
78 Geology And Earth Science $60,000 3.8% 46%
79 Medical Assisting Services $50,000 2.1% 26%
80 Agriculture Production And Management $50,000 2.4% 12%
81 History $52,000 3.0% 49%
82 International Relations $60,000 3.9% 52%
83 Miscellaneous Education $50,000 1.8% 45%
84 Miscellaneous Social Sciences $55,000 3.2% 50%
85 Physical And Health Education Teaching $50,000 2.0% 42%
86 Mathematics Teacher Education $50,000 1.6% 54%
87 Public Policy $60,000 5.1% 55%
88 Animal Sciences $47,500 1.5% 38%
89 Neuroscience $50,000 1.9% 53%
90 Geography $52,000 3.9% 33%
91 Secondary Teacher Education $48,000 1.4% 49%
92 Special Needs Education $49,000 1.8% 60%
93 Cognitive Science And Biopsychology $56,000 6.7% 54%
94 Advertising And Public Relations $50,000 3.1% 17%
95 Criminal Justice And Fire Protection $50,000 3.1% 21%
96 Electrical, Mechanical, And Precision Technologies And Production $45,000 1.6% 10%
97 Journalism $50,000 3.1% 26%
98 United States History $55,000 4.6% 51%
99 Science And Computer Teacher Education $48,000 1.8% 53%
100 Communications $50,000 3.3% 22%
100 French German Latin And Other Common Foreign Language Studies $50,000 2.5% 52%
102 Multi/Interdisciplinary Studies $48,000 2.7% 26%
103 Educational Psychology $50,000 2.5% 71%
104 School Student Counseling $50,000 2.5% 88%
105 General Agriculture $47,000 2.7% 26%
106 Environmental Science $50,000 3.3% 31%
107 Miscellaneous Agriculture $42,700 1.3% 30%
108 General Education $46,000 1.9% 47%
109 Plant Science And Agronomy $50,000 3.5% 27%
110 Natural Resources Management $50,000 3.4% 30%
111 Criminology $45,000 2.2% 24%
112 Health And Medical Administrative Services $50,000 3.6% 30%
113 Humanities $50,000 3.3% 42%
114 Elementary Education $44,200 1.5% 46%
115 Social Science Or History Teacher Education $48,000 2.5% 51%
116 Community And Public Health $46,000 2.5% 38%
117 Philosophy And Religious Studies $50,000 3.1% 57%
118 Teacher Education: Multiple Levels $43,000 1.2% 47%
119 Nutrition Sciences $45,000 2.0% 43%
120 Pre-Law And Legal Studies $49,000 3.5% 34%
121 General Social Sciences $48,000 3.3% 37%
122 Clinical Psychology $43,100 1.2% 71%
123 Area Ethnic And Civilization Studies $49,400 3.7% 47%
124 Industrial And Organizational Psychology $50,000 4.3% 43%
125 Language And Drama Education $45,000 2.1% 54%
126 Botany $50,000 3.4% 64%
127 Intercultural And International Studies $48,000 3.3% 39%
128 Hospitality Management $44,000 3.1% 12%
129 Miscellaneous Health Medical Professions $45,000 2.4% 49%
130 Sociology $46,000 3.2% 35%
131 Liberal Arts $47,000 3.9% 26%
132 English Language And Literature $47,800 3.4% 46%
133 Ecology $42,000 2.3% 38%
134 Early Childhood Education $39,000 1.7% 37%
135 Art And Music Education $42,000 2.1% 46%
136 General Medical And Health Services $47,000 3.6% 38%
137 Library Science $48,000 3.3% 77%
138 Theology And Religious Vocations $38,000 1.7% 43%
139 Social Work $42,000 2.4% 51%
140 Psychology $45,000 3.1% 47%
141 Family And Consumer Sciences $40,000 2.6% 31%
142 Counseling Psychology $41,800 2.1% 75%
143 Physical Fitness Parks Recreation And Leisure $41,400 3.0% 30%
144 Interdisciplinary Social Sciences $43,300 3.4% 36%
145 Art History And Criticism $42,000 3.0% 40%
146 Commercial Art And Graphic Design $41,800 4.1% 11%
147 Anthropology And Archeology $45,000 3.9% 46%
148 Other Foreign Languages $45,000 4.2% 46%
149 Human Services And Community Organization $40,000 3.2% 29%
150 Studio Arts $35,000 3.0% 27%
151 Miscellaneous Psychology $42,100 3.7% 46%
152 Communication Technologies $40,000 4.9% 11%
153 Cosmetology Services And Culinary Arts $35,000 3.3% 12%
154 Mass Media $40,000 6.0% 16%
155 Music $36,000 3.1% 42%
156 Miscellaneous Fine Arts $38,000 5.7% 20%
157 Film Video And Photographic Arts $37,000 6.5% 15%
158 Fine Arts $37,000 4.8% 24%
159 Linguistics And Comparative Language And Literature $40,000 3.9% 45%
160 Composition And Rhetoric $37,800 4.4% 29%
161 Visual And Performing Arts $32,000 4.1% 23%
162 Drama And Theater Arts $35,500 5.2% 26%

Methodology

To determine the most valuable majors, Bankrate looked at the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. The 2017 data was obtained through the IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota research program. For the study, Bankrate used weighted data to analyze what bachelor’s degree holders who were either employed or unemployed entered as their first major and income for the past 12 months. We analyzed majors with labor forces of at least 15,000 people. We also looked at how many college graduates obtained a higher degree such as a master’s degree or doctoral degree. To construct our ranking, Bankrate examined three factors (weightings in parentheses): median income (70%), unemployment rate (20%) and the percentage of people with an advanced degree (10%). The final income data and labor force data was rounded to the nearest hundred.