The most valuable college majors, ranked

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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.

Actuarial science is the most valuable college major, according to a Bankrate.com study of 162 degrees. Other fields of study that topped the list also fell in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, bolstering the efforts to get more students involved in STEM programs.

The most valuable college majors

To determine the most valuable majors, Bankrate looked at the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. The 2016 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.

Actuarial science rose to the top because degree holders earned more on average ($108,658) than their peers and a faced lower unemployment (2.3 percent). Plus, only 22 percent of actuarial science majors held a master’s degree or doctoral degree, suggesting the majority of graduates did not need to take on more schooling — which often comes with more debt — to find employment.

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.

Business, science and math degrees claimed the first 10 spots in Bankrate’s study. On average, the sample of 162 majors had an income of $72,616 and an unemployment rate of 2.9 percent. Almost 4 in 10 (37 percent) bachelor’s degree holders completed an advanced degree, according to the study.

The least valuable college majors

Miscellaneous fine arts — basically any fine arts degree that doesn’t fit cleanly in the art history, music, drama and theater or other major buckets — was dead last in Bankrate’s study of most valuable majors. On average, degree holders had a lower income ($40,855) and a higher unemployment rate (9.1 percent).

Those who land a job with their miscellaneous fine arts degrees often ended up as art teachers, music contractors, craft artists and illustrators, according to the career matching platform Sokanu.

In general, fine arts degrees all fell to the second half of the list along with composition and speech (second from last) and clinical psychology (third from last).

Philip Olson was hired as director of education at an acting program after graduating with a theater and dance degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007. But he quickly learned his earning potential there would be limited with his salary at best hitting the $30,000 range.

“I ended up hiring a career consultant who helped me look at what else is out there,” Olson says. He took his skills of communicating and engaging people to an investment and financial services firm and later became a certified financial planner.

In 2015, he and his wife Julia Lorenz-Olson, also a theater and dance major, ended up starting their own financial services firm for those in the creative field called The Art of Finance. In January, the couple launched “Two Cents” on PBS Digital Studios. The web show provides financial advice to younger people.

“Obtaining a creative arts degree, or miscellaneous arts degree or being in any sort of creative space is a terrific investment, and I would strongly advocate for it,” Olson says. “I would caveat that to say that if you get a degree in that space, expect to use it in a nontraditional way if you want to be successful. Don’t go get a degree in music with the expectation that you can only be a professional musician. There are so many other ways to use those skills.”

Any degree can be valuable

Saving for a college education is important, despite the rising cost of tuition. Graduate degree holders are still more likely to have a job and earn a decent salary than their peers who skipped school.

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.”

The Major Experience program encourages students to take the time to explore different majors out there before fully committing. The program also helps students look up what professions they would like to go into so they know the skills they need. And there are opportunities to connect with other students with declared majors as well as working professionals.

“Essentially all a major does is say, ‘Hey, I studied a little bit more classes in this area than opposed to others,’” Twyman says. “Those big skills, for the most part, are built in any major.”

To determine the most valuable majors, Bankrate.com looked at the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. The 2016 data was obtained through the IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota research program. For the study, Bankrate used weighted data to analyze what Bachelor 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.