Sara Routhier, Managing Editor of Features and Outreach, has professional experience as an educator, SEO specialist, and content marketer. She has over five years of experience in the insurance industry. As a researcher, data nerd, writer, and editor she strives to curate educational, enlightening articles that provide you with the must-know facts and best-kept secrets within the overwhelming worl...

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Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity-backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He also has an MBA from the University of South Florida. ...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder, CFP®

UPDATED: Feb 9, 2021

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From the moment we enter kindergarten to the time we step foot out of college we are told we can be anything we want. “Follow your dreams, and you’ll be happy,” is a saying we heard so frequently from almost every teacher and every mentor that it might as well have been a recording toggled on repeat. While there is undoubtedly some truth to that statement, cynics are born when their dreams don’t yield the sort of future they hoped for, and they find themselves crushed under the weight of their student loans.

When it comes to college, high school students are shepherded to recruitment officers and asked to apply for higher education before they even graduate. Most high school students have no idea what they want to do with their life, but they’re forced to declare an area of study and to pursue a degree that may or may not grant themwith the sort of life they had hoped for. What’s more is students take out thousands of dollars worth of student loans to fund this degree, only to find the sad and unfortunate truth a few years down the line that all degrees are not created equal.

And that’s the biggest tragedy: students don’t know what their particular degree is worth when pursuing a higher education. Rather, they’re simply instructed that success is obtained by having a college degree. They’re not told that there is a massive difference between a drawing degree and an engineering degree, or a music degree and a biology degree. Due to the propagation of the notion, “do whatever you want,” and the refusal to give information about the difference in “degree worth,” students follow their passion only to find their degrees don’t the yield the results they hoped for. This misinformation often results people burdened with massive student loans while following career paths they don’t enjoy.

If students are going to college to be economically successful, they should avoid many degrees that may be more “fun” to the general population. Science and math tend to reign supreme in the area of yielding the most profitability. If one is truly passionate about art and music, then by all means, study those fields. But it’s important to know that art and music majors do not always lead to the most lucrative of lifestyles—despite them being accredited and real degrees.

What are the Highest Paying College Degrees?

According to America.edu, the top five highest paying degrees are all in the field of engineering. In the top 20 list, engineering degrees make up a total of nearly 50 percent of the highest paying degrees, meaning if students want the biggest bang for their student loan bucks, they should consider studying in this highly-demanded field.

The following are the top 20 best paying college degrees in America based on their average mid-career pay:

1. Petroleum engineering

2. Aerospace engineering

3. Chemical engineering

4. Electrical engineering

5. Nuclear engineering

6. Applied mathematics

7. Biomedical engineering

8. Physics

9. Computer engineering

10. Economics

11. Computer science

12. Civil engineering

13. Statistics

14. Finance

15. Software engineering

16. Management info. systems

17. Mathematics

18. Government

19. Information systems

20. Construction Management

What are the lowest paying college degrees?

Now that we know what the best paying college degrees are, let’s take a look at the degrees that sometimes lead to financial struggle when trying to pay back student loans.

Again based on mid-career pay, the 20 worst-paying college degrees are:

1. Child and family studies

2. Elementary education

3. Social work

4. Athletic training

5. Culinary arts

6. Horticulture

7. Paralegal studies/law

8. Theology

9. Recreation & leisure

10. Special education

11. Dietetics

12. Religious studies

13. Art

14. Education

15. Interdisciplinary studies

16. Interior design

17. Nutrition

18. Graphic design

19. Music

20. Art history

Statistics Should Only be Used for Reference

With all of that said, these rankings and statistics should be used only as a tool to aid in the decision making process, but they should not be used (nor seen) as definite truths. There are plenty of music majors and graphic designers making six digits every year. For those individuals, paying off student loans of near any amount would prove to be relatively painless.

Likewise, there are some government workers struggling to feed their families on the wages they make—making their student loan payments very difficult to keep up with.

At the end of the day, the saying we’ve always heard, “Follow your dreams, and you’ll be happy,” is not something to be disregarded simply for money’s sake. Rather, it should be practiced if an individual truly has a dream they wish to fulfill or if they are very passionate about a certain subject.

But if a student is entering college with a hefty load of student loans, and if they hope to pay them off in a timely manner, they need to be aware of the average pay their degree will likely yield. Because, after all, most degrees offered at a single institution cost the exact same in student loans—but their monetary value can often be very different.