Despite a soon-to-burst student loan bubble and a stubborn un- and under-employment epidemic plaguing recent college grads, study after study continues to show that, on average, those who earn a post-secondary degree far outpace those who don’t when it comes lifetime earnings.
But even though the general consensus validates college as an educational experience worth both the time and ever-increasing cost, not all college degrees are created equal. Indeed, choosing the right major of study can make all the difference between a six-figure income and living in your parents’ basement for the next five (or ten) years.
Here, we’ve taken a look at five degree programs that offer the best —and most profitable—post-graduate employment opportunities.
The addition of millions of previously uninsured Americans to the healthcare system through the passage of the Affordable Care Act, coupled with the aging-while-sick baby boomer population, has created the perfect job-creation storm for those in the healthcare industry. Job security may be considered a thing of the distant past in many fields, but for nurses, employment prospects look bright for many years to come.
“Healthcare is a growing industry, and registered nurses (RNs) with specialized experience are very marketable,” says Sarah Stevens, an account executive with the nurse staffing firm Fortus Healthcare Solutions. “People who have just graduated with RN degrees just need to dive in and get their careers started in ICU or medical surgery. In those areas, they will have the opportunity to develop skills in different areas working with patients who have co-morbidities. It is a great place to be when an RN is called with multiple opportunities that they are qualified for. [They] can pick and choose their perfect position, and if they are flexible about relocation, the sky is the limit.”
Computer Science and Related Fields
In today’s wireless era, it should be no surprise that computer science makes the list as a top lucrative and expanding field. “Computer science is a vague term, but the field can include over 20 different specialties that are all related to technology and computers,” says Adam Sadri, Director of TutorNerds, a company that provides tutoring, test prep and admissions consulting for prospective college students. “Earning a degree in this field is promising, with graduates often getting entry-level positions in the $60K range.”
Junior coder, front-end developer, back-end developer, full-stack developer and general information technology work are all viable career paths under the “computer science” umbrella. But while a related degree will certainly get a foot in the door, hands-on experience is likely the best indicator of future earnings (which shouldn’t be an issue for the most tech-savvy millennials). “I know of full-stack website developers who earn over $200,000 a year, working from the luxury of their residence,” Sadri adds, “and there will be an increase in demand for this field.”
From telephone switchboard operators to factory workers in various fields, there are scores of jobs that technology has either already replaced or will likely eliminate in the future. One position that will remain constant, however, is the accountant. No matter the business, having someone (or an entire department) on hand with a broad knowledge of finance and fiscal management is an absolute necessity.
“Accounting has frequently been dubbed ‘the language of business.’ And as native languages are the basis for all meaningful communication, successful businesses that thrive must have an accountant who is fluent in the language,” says Susan Mundy, a CPA and director of the accounting program at the City University of Seattle.
“Because businesses come in all shapes and sizes with a myriad of missions, the opportunities for accountants are limitless. For example, manufacturing entities require the expertise of management accountants to help them decide what to produce and how to price that product in a competitive environment. And as the world continues its march toward unified accounting standards, the need for financial accountants who know and understand complex accounting rules and can communicate those simply to others continues to grow. Being an accountant opens multiple pathways to growth and success.”
Engineering has long been considered a high-earning field of study, and it looks as though that trend will continue for the foreseeable future. “The field of engineering [and corresponding starting salaries] are diverse, but the average engineer makes a starting salary of about $50,000, with some earning as high as $75,000,” says Sardi.
And although demand is expected to remain flat for the industry as a whole, there are new fields opening up that offer additional employment opportunities. According to Sardi, petroleum engineering is particularly lucrative (thanks to an increase in domestic oil production), and new grads tend to earn salaries on the high-end of the engineering range.
“Petroleum engineers are in charge of optimizing production rates of oil and gas from the ground, overseeing drilling exploration and related activities and managing interface between reservoir and wells,” he explains. “For our generation, the field of petroleum engineering will remain bright. However, with advancement of technology and the popularity of alternative fuel uses, eventually there might be less of a demand in this field.
For liberal arts majors, job opportunities are typically very limited within their specific industries, but it may be an entirely different story for those willing to venture outside of their fields. “Fifteen years ago, when I was new to the career counseling field, a close friend of mine was an executive for a major manufacturer,” explains Robert Swanson, Director of Career Services at Niagara College. “I asked him once what majors he looks for in hiring new college graduates for management positions. I fully expected him to say business or industrial engineering, but imagine my surprise when he said, ‘I prefer liberal arts majors.’ Since then I have had dozens of employers in a variety of industries echo that sentiment.”
The attraction, says Swanson, are the transferable skills that liberal arts majors are able to leverage into career success and increased earning power even outside of their core fields of study. Art majors, he adds, have an innate attention to detail, as well as a self-discipline and big-picture vision, that resonate strongly in the business world, while psychology majors are deeply self-aware and in tune with the motivations and behaviors of others—skills that would be extremely attractive in marketing or other consumer-focused industries.
Pursuing a liberal arts degree en route to a career in business or marketing is certainly the road less traveled, and it will definitely require creativity and resourcefulness for those who take that path. “It’s incumbent on the liberal arts student to think big and cast a wide net, turn over stones and look for opportunities that are not right in front of them,” Swanson adds.
“For example, I recently asked a history major what he was good at and he answered, ‘I like looking things up.’ Later, at a job fair, I was talking to a customs broker who would normally hire a logistics major or business student, but he said he needed someone to research post-9/11 changes to his industry. I connected the two and the student got the job. The point is, you don’t have to be a business major to succeed. You just need to have the right skills.”
Interested in more advice for affording college and navigating the job market as a recent grad? You might also like… 10 Finance Rules for Recent College Graduates, America’s Best Value Colleges, Blogs We Love: Ask a Manager