Best-Paying Majors for a Career

The College Degrees That Pay the Most

Hands using digital tablet for business and education
••• Ade Akinrujomu / Getty Images

Which college majors have the best earnings potential? How much can the class of 2018 expect to make when they start their first professional jobs? It’s always a good idea to know what you’re worth when you’re about to start a job search.

When you’re evaluating offers for your first job after college, it’s much easier if you have salary benchmarks to review. It also makes sense to look at how majors relate to earning when you’re considering career options as an undergraduate. For students who are interested in a well-paid career, consider some of the best-paying majors when you're looking at degree options.

There is currently a strong job market for college graduates, so the candidates with the right educational background, skills, internship or other experience, and an in-demand major will be well-positioned to start a career with a decent paycheck at a company that’s a match for their career objectives.

Hiring Is Up for 2018

A tighter job market has increased demand for college graduates to meet the requirements of employers for additional labor to support business expansion. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) predicts that employers will hire 4 percent more graduates in 2018 than in 2017. NACE employer surveys indicate that 8 of the top 10 majors with the highest demand are business disciplines including finance, accounting, business administration, management information systems, marketing, sales, human resources, and logistics.


The projections from the Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI) from Michigan State University are even more optimistic with estimates of a 19 percent increase in hiring. CERI cites business growth, retirements, and turnover as key factors impacting expanded hiring plans. This increased demand for college graduates is anticipated to put pressure on salaries, and CERI expects overall salaries for college graduates to increase by 4 percent.

A CareerBuilder survey reports that 80 percent of employers say they plan to hire college graduates this year, with 47 percent planning to offer higher salaries than last year, and a third paying a starting salary of $50,000 or more.

Best-Paying Majors for 2018

The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a survey for the highest paying majors of 2018. STEM degrees have the highest salary bracket, followed by business and marketing degrees, and finally social science and humanities degrees.

STEM Degrees: As in past years, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines are expected to be amongst the highest compensated majors. According to NACE, employers expect to pay the highest salaries to engineering graduates—$66,521, followed by computer science graduates—$66,005. Math and Science graduates are expected to earn an average of $61,867, with Physics standing out within science at $69,900 (NACE stated that the number of responses regarding physics hiring was small).

Career Options to Consider:

Business Degrees: Business graduates are expected to receive an average starting salary of $56,720. Marketing graduates will likely garner the highest average salaries within the business category—$62,624.

Career Options to Consider:

Social Sciences and Humanities Degrees: Social science graduates are projected to receive an average salary of $56,689, while the estimate for humanities graduates is $56,688, for agriculture and natural resources, $53,565, and for communications, $51,448.

Career Options to Consider:

2018 vs. 2017 Highest Salaries

Although the highest salaries have recently been awarded to workers in the engineering and computer science sectors, these disciplines are only expected to have salary increases of less than 1 percent over offers for 2017. Salaries for math and science graduates are expected to increase by 4.2 percent, while business graduates are projected to be paid 3.5% more.

Surprisingly, the highest projected wage growth was for humanities, up 16.3 percent (limited sample) and social science, 6 percent. Agriculture/natural resources and communications graduates are both expected to experience a slight decline in expected salary. The trend for employers to pay more than before to non-technical majors may indicate a greater willingness to train graduates on the job in response to a tight labor market.

Best-Paying Industries

NACE reported that the highest paying industries were expected to be management consulting—$67,569, chemical manufacturing—$65,669, information technology—$63,902, finance, insurance and real estate—$63,826, and engineering services—$63,624.

Jobs College Grads Want the Most

LinkedIn's Guide to Getting Hired in 2018 reports on the types of jobs 2016 - 2017 grads applied for, along with salary information. Expect a similar trend for the class of 2018.

Factors That Impact Earnings Potential

Keep in mind that these figures represent averages and that many other factors will determine the actual offers tendered to graduates in various majors. Students with high academic achievement, strong internship experience, a profile of campus or community leadership, and awards will tend to receive higher offers. Students from highly selective and elite colleges will often receive above-average offers.

The cost of living in your target geographic area will also influence offers, with employers paying a higher differential for expensive locations like California, Metropolitan New York, Boston, and Chicago.

It’s important to keep all these factors in mind when you’re looking at job options and what you can expect to earn. In some cases, recent and soon-to-be graduates have unrealistic expectations and are disappointed when they get a job offer that’s much lower than they anticipated.

It’s Not All About the Money

Selecting a college major can be a challenging task for students who are confronted with a plethora of choices. A sound decision requires an assessment of many factors including your skills, personality orientation, interests, personal values, lifestyle choices, the opportunity for growth in various careers, as well as the availability of jobs. Some of the jobs that pay the most may not rank well for other factors like job satisfaction or work/life balance.

Of course, starting salary is often a consideration as is income potential over time. Keep in mind that success in your college major and your marketability to employers will be influenced by how well your skills and interests match the demands of your major. However, it makes sense to consider the salary implications of whatever major you choose.

How to Get Hired

Are you ready to get going on a job search? It’s never too early to position yourself for a successful search for a job for after graduation. If you're an undergrad, there are things you can do now to prepare to get hired for a post-graduate job. On the other hand, if you’ve been busy with school and extra-curricular activities, it’s never too late to get into job hunt mode. You can fast-track your job search to land your first job after college quickly.