College Majors with the Worst Return on Investment

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After choosing a college, the most important decision for a student is their major. While some students enroll in college knowing exactly what they want to do, many won’t declare a major until after their freshman or sophomore year. Usually, academic interests and intended career paths factor into students’ choice of major. However, students should also consider earning potential, especially with the cost of college continuing to rise.

With regards to earning potential, more education is generally better. According to Five Rules for the College and Career Game, a recent report released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, students who earn a graduate degree have median earnings twice as high as those who only have a high school diploma. The median earnings for professionals with a bachelor’s degree is $62,000.

While level of education is important, the individual program of study or major matters even more. According to the same Georgetown report, students who receive an associate’s degree in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) field have higher median annual earnings ($60,000) than students who receive a bachelor’s in a humanities/liberal arts field ($53,000), arts ($50,000), or psychology/social work ($47,000).

Given the wide disparity among majors, some employers recommend thinking carefully about the job market before deciding what to study. Michelle Armer, Chief People Officer at CareerBuilder, said, “Everyone chooses their college major and career path with their own set of criteria in mind, but the rising cost of education and student debt is undoubtedly a concern for people who are college-bound.”

In a recent survey, CareerBuilder found that over 50 percent of 2014 graduates—now five years into the workforce—have student debt they are working to pay off. When asked whether the rising price of education will contribute to a decline in certain majors, Armer explained, “If people are considering a few different majors, they may be more likely to choose the path with a higher future earning potential, and we could potentially see a decline in majors that don’t set students up for clear earnings paths.”

But salaries vary significantly within majors too. For example, some liberal arts majors make more than some engineering majors despite engineers making more overall. Notably, the Georgetown report found the top 25 percent of liberal arts and humanities majors out-earn the bottom 25 percent of architecture and engineering majors. While some of that variation is due to differences among people and job locations, variation among schools and programs contribute as well.

Unfortunately, at present, there’s no publicly available data showing how majors from specific schools perform in the workforce. But this could soon change as the result of a new executive order issued by President Trump calling for transparency in program-level data.

“In a shift toward program-level outcomes, every college will be unbundled down to the program level—its identity, traditions and structure will become less important. Instead, the outcomes of students in each particular major or field will be elevated in importance,” explained Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, research professor and Director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“The most significant effect would probably be the streamlining of public university systems,” he continued. Carnevale envisions a world in which public university systems might decide to offer a specific degree (say English) at only one campus, instead of at every branch campus. This would allow the university to direct its resources and top talent in English towards a single campus, and ideally would create one outstanding degree program instead of several mediocre ones. On the other hand, this could create an environment in which degree programs with low earning potential experience budget cuts and become worse, not better.

Armed with this new information, should students shy away from majors that traditionally don’t pay well, even if it’s their calling? Fortunately, even if a student wants to pursue a major that does not offer the highest earning potential, there are ways to make up the difference.

“For entry-level jobs, three in five employers have said soft skills will be just as important as hard skills in the hiring process, and [these employers] are looking for candidates who have basic knowledge of the position, are team-oriented, and have attention to detail—skills that recent college graduates of any major can possess,” said Armer.

It’s also worth remembering that one’s college major and first job do not necessarily dictate their entire career path. Students looking to increase their earning potential after college might benefit from pursuing a graduate degree, certification, or technical skill.


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Until the new higher education legislation goes into effect, it is good for students to keep in mind which majors on average pay the best and worst. To determine this, private tutoring firm HeyTutor analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and looked at median salaries, unemployment rates, and underemployment rates for 73 different college majors. To control for educational attainment, the salary data only takes into account earnings from workers with undergraduate degrees, not workers who went on to receive graduate or professional degrees.

HeyTutor found that the median salary for all entry-level professionals with a bachelor’s degree is $40,000, and the mid-career median salary is $68,000. The overall unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree holders is 3.9 percent, and the underemployment rate is 42.9 percent. Consistent with the Georgetown report, HeyTutor also found that the college majors with the lowest return on investment tend to be in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Below is a list of college majors with the lowest entry-level salaries:

Salaries for the 19 lowest-paying majors

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19. Animal and Plant Sciences

  • Median wage early career: $35,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $60,000

  • Unemployment rate: 3.0%

  • Underemployment rate: 57.4%

  • Share with graduate degree: 34.8%

Students who study animal and plant sciences learn the scientific principles behind the breeding, cultivation, and production of agricultural plants and animal products. The curriculum for this major includes crop cultivation, food production, and animal husbandry, among other agricultural topics. Students who undertake this field of study pursue careers as agronomists, greenhouse managers, biotechnologists, animal scientists, and soil scientists. However, as agriculture has become increasingly automated, demand for many of these positions has suffered.

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18. Mass Media

  • Median wage early career: $35,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $60,000

  • Unemployment rate: 7.8%

  • Underemployment rate: 55.2%

  • Share with graduate degree: 18.3%

Mass media is a broad major that incorporates media history, media criticism, and the social and cultural effects of mass media. The best students who enroll in a mass media major have a variety of career options to choose from, including public relations, media planning, advertising, and journalism. However, many mass media majors struggle to find jobs in their field and have the highest unemployment rate on this list, at 7.8 percent.

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17. Elementary Education

  • Median wage early career: $35,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $43,000

  • Unemployment rate: 1.9%

  • Underemployment rate: 15.9%

  • Share with graduate degree: 47.0%

Elementary education is an academic program that prepares future teachers for educating elementary school students (kindergarten through eighth grade). Unlike secondary school teachers, who specialize in a specific discipline like math or English, elementary education teachers study a holistic curriculum that includes all subjects relevant to grades K-8. Despite low salaries, elementary education majors have the second lowest underemployment rate of all majors in the analysis at 15.9 percent.

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16. Foreign Language

  • Median wage early career: $35,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $60,000

  • Unemployment rate: 4.2%

  • Underemployment rate: 46.2%

  • Share with graduate degree: 50.0%

Students who major in a foreign language may become foreign language teachers, translators, or linguists. In addition to below average wages, the unemployment rate of 4.2 percent for foreign language majors is higher than the average unemployment rate for all bachelor-degree holders.

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15. English Language

  • Median wage early career: $35,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $60,000

  • Unemployment rate: 5.3%

  • Underemployment rate: 50.6%

  • Share with graduate degree: 45.5%

English language majors learn the history and structure of the English language. They usually also study the literature of English-speaking cultures, especially British and American. Due to the writing-intensive curriculum, English majors often enter the workforce as journalists, PR managers, or marketing professionals. Many also become English teachers. More than half of English language majors are classified as underemployed.


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14. Biology

  • Median wage early career: $35,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $65,000

  • Unemployment rate: 4.6%

  • Underemployment rate: 44.6%

  • Share with graduate degree: 63.2%

Biology majors immerse themselves in the study of living organisms. Courses in a biology major might include biochemistry, evolutionary biology, genetics, marine biology, microbiology, plant anatomy, and zoology. Biology majors can undertake careers as biologists, geneticists, lab technicians, meteorologists, and more. While biology majors without a graduate degree have below average earnings, over 63 percent will go on to pursue an advanced degree, which usually helps financially.

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13. Miscellaneous Biological Sciences

  • Median wage early career: $35,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $60,000

  • Unemployment rate: 3.9%

  • Underemployment rate: 46.5%

  • Share with graduate degree: 60.4%

Miscellaneous biological sciences are instructional programs related to biology, but do not have a clear specialization listed in the National Center for Education Statistics Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP). Some of these majors might include immunology and physiological sciences.

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12. Nutrition Sciences

  • Median wage early career: $35,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $54,000

  • Unemployment rate: 5.8%

  • Underemployment rate: 47.9%

  • Share with graduate degree: 46.4%

A nutrition sciences major teaches students how food plays a role in human growth and metabolism, using fundamentals from the agricultural, biological, and biomedical sciences. Many nutrition sciences majors become nutritionists, corporate wellness specialists, and food product developers. The unemployment rate for this major is 5.8 percent.

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11. Sociology

  • Median wage early career: $34,600

  • Median wage mid-career: $56,000

  • Unemployment rate: 3.9%

  • Underemployment rate: 56.0%

  • Share with graduate degree: 35.2%

Sociology is the study of institutions and interpersonal relationships within society. The curriculum for this major often includes social theory, research methods, hierarchies, dynamics of social change, family structures, and social issues. Sociology majors have a wide range of options for careers, but more than half find themselves underemployed. For the most successful sociology majors, popular paths include advertising, law enforcement, counseling, public policy, community development, and human resources.

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10. Leisure and Hospitality

  • Median wage early career: $34,200

  • Median wage mid-career: $58,000

  • Unemployment rate: 3.7%

  • Underemployment rate: 63.0%

  • Share with graduate degree: 30.2%

Leisure and hospitality is an excellent choice for students who are interested in working in resort management, hotels, or tourism agencies. This major prepares individuals to work in hospitality operations through coursework in tourism, hospitality, management, marketing, franchising, and regulation. However, leisure and hospitality has the third highest underemployment rate of any major, and its typical student will earn less than $35,000 per year after college.


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9. Psychology

  • Median wage early career: $34,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $56,000

  • Unemployment rate: 4.1%

  • Underemployment rate: 49.7%

  • Share with graduate degree: 50.3%

Classified as a “behavioral science,” psychology is the study of individual and collective behavior. Psychology majors study the physical and environmental factors that influence human behavior, research methods, and the treatment of mood disorders. Psychology majors can pursue careers ranging from business and marketing to counseling and social services. Unfortunately, a typical early-career wage for psychology majors is just $34,000 per year.

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8. Fine Arts

  • Median wage early career: $33,500

  • Median wage mid-career: $55,000

  • Unemployment rate: 5.6%

  • Underemployment rate: 58.4%

  • Share with graduate degree: 22.5%

Fine arts majors hone their craft in visual media, which may include drawing, sculpture, printmaking, textiles, intermedia, or photography. Students learn about color theory, composition, perspective, studio management, and art portfolio marketing. Potential job titles for fine arts majors include graphic designer, art director, creative strategist, and commercial artist. However, the underemployment rate for fine arts majors is far above average at 58.4 percent.

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7. Liberal Arts

  • Median wage early career: $33,400

  • Median wage mid-career: $60,000

  • Unemployment rate: 6.7%

  • Underemployment rate: 58.4%

  • Share with graduate degree: 27.8%

A liberal arts major is characterized by its breadth of subjects, including the humanities, arts, sciences, and social sciences. With such a diverse curriculum, liberal arts majors can engage in a variety of careers and industries. Sales, marketing, business, journalism, and public relations are just a few examples of career paths. Liberal arts majors have the second highest unemployment rate on this list.

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6. Anthropology

  • Median wage early career: $33,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $57,000

  • Unemployment rate: 6.6%

  • Underemployment rate: 59.1%

  • Share with graduate degree: 46.9%

Anthropology is the study of human beings, their primal ancestors, and cultures. The curriculum includes paleontology, archeology, evolution, linguistics, and research methods. Those who study anthropology can enter the job market in forensic pathology, museum studies, and international affairs. Yet, anthropology majors have one of the highest underemployment rates.

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5. Early Childhood Education

  • Median wage early career: $32,100

  • Median wage mid-career: $41,000

  • Unemployment rate: 1.7%

  • Underemployment rate: 19.2%

  • Share with graduate degree: 38.2%

Early childhood education majors undergo training to become teachers for students ranging from infancy through eight years old. Similar to elementary education majors, early childhood education majors are exposed to a general curriculum. Early childhood education majors have the lowest mid-career median wage on this list at $41,000.

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4. Family and Consumer Sciences

  • Median wage early career: $32,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $50,000

  • Unemployment rate: 4.3%

  • Underemployment rate: 44.6%

  • Share with graduate degree: 32.5%

A family and consumer science major teaches students about the relationship between individuals and their family, work, and community lives. Many students in this major become family and consumer science teachers, but others also work in human resources, nonprofit organizations, school services, and more. The mid-career median wage of $50,000 is about 26 percent lower than the mid-career median wage for all bachelor’s degree holders.

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3. Theology and Religion

  • Median wage early career: $32,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $49,000

  • Unemployment rate: 1.0%

  • Underemployment rate: 46.9%

  • Share with graduate degree: 42.2%

A theology and religion major is the academic study of the beliefs underlying different religious faiths. A theology curriculum may focus on one religion faith or include the interdisciplinary study of many faiths. Students who undertake this course of study understand the history, doctrines, beliefs, and applications of religion. Many theology students become pastors, rectors, campus ministers, or chaplins. Others become teachers, counselors, and other social service workers. Students who study theology and religion have the lowest unemployment rate of any major at 1 percent.

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2. Social Services

  • Median wage early career: $31,300

  • Median wage mid-career: $44,200

  • Unemployment rate: 3.5%

  • Underemployment rate: 31.5%

  • Share with graduate degree: 47.4%

Social services majors typically choose this academic program to pursue careers in social work or psychiatric case work. Coursework includes skills like clinical interviewing techniques, therapeutic intervention strategies, counseling, rehabilitation, and record-keeping. A common job title for social services majors is “social worker.”

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1. Performing Arts

  • Median wage early career: $30,000

  • Median wage mid-career: $58,000

  • Unemployment rate: 3.7%

  • Underemployment rate: 65.7%

  • Share with graduate degree: 37.6%

A performing arts major encompasses a variety of visual media and performance disciplines. A few examples are theater, music, art, and dance. Potential career paths for performing arts majors include professional dancers, artists, music directors, talent agents, and actors. In addition to having the lowest early career median wages, performing arts majors have the highest underemployment rate on this list at 65.7 percent.


The data used in this analysis is from a Federal Reserve Bank of New York analysis of U.S. Census Bureau 2016 & 2017 American Community Survey data. To control for educational attainment and hours worked, median wages are for individuals working full-time with a bachelor’s degree only (e.g. they did not yet go on to receive a graduate or professional degree). Early career wages are for individuals between the ages of 22 and 27, whereas mid-career wages are for individuals between the ages of 35 and 45.

Unemployment and underemployment statistics are for bachelor’s degree holders and above that are between the ages of 22 and 27. The graduate degree share is for individuals between 25 and 65 with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Individuals enrolled in school are not included in the analysis.

The final list of items is ordered by median early-career wage. Only majors with a median early-career wage below $35,000 per year were included.


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