Going to college undoubtedly increases a student’s earning prospects. Those who obtain a degree make an average of 71% more money than peers who halted their education after high school, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Going into student loan debt, however, is a heavier price to pay for some majors than it is for others.
To determine which courses of study have the most financial value, we tagged each with an “earnings-to-debt.” This was done by dividing the average student loan disbursement for 64 majors by their closest-matching job’s early career wage. Here are the results:
- The 14 majors with the highest earnings-to-debt ratio could all be connected to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Physical sciences, computer engineering, general engineering, chemical engineering and computer science rounded out the top five.
- The majors with the lowest earnings-to-debt ratio included law, pharmacy and education, in part because of the postgraduate degrees that these fields often require. Plus, the early career wage in these occupations was measured as middling at best.
- Other majors’ ratios were also dragged down by their low ranking for early career income. Graduates who majored in social service ($31,300 per year) and fine arts ($33,500), for example, are often paid low salaries fresh out of school, despite their student loan balances. Some entering these lesser-paid fields also find themselves underemployed — that is, employed in jobs that do not traditionally require a college degree.
Being a STEM major pays off the most — and the fastest
If you’re naturally drawn to STEM, here’s some good (obvious) news: Your student loan debt is more worthwhile than it is for many of your classmates. That’s particularly true for engineering majors, who took 9 of the top 12 spots in our rankings, depending on their specific field of expertise.
A relatively lower student loan balance and higher entry-level salary paved the way. Our nine top-ranking engineering majors borrowed $8,544 on average in 2017 (compared with $10,120 among all majors) and were slated to earn $62,111 after graduating (compared with $42,842).
The cherry on top for engineers is that their average annual salary should climb even higher as they advance in their careers. For instance, chemical engineers start out making around $68,000 a year, but they’ll likely rake in about six figures by the middle of their career, according to New York Federal Reserve data.
With that said, physical sciences led the way among majors, with the highest return on investment. Whether for chemists, geoscientists, physicists or related professionals, the major made up for its mediocre early career wage ($46,000) with our study’s lowest average student loan disbursement in 2017 ($5,290).
Debt outpaces earnings for some majors that require a second degree
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist — or STEM major — to figure out that making a bigger salary sometimes requires a second (or specialized) degree. When you add student loan debt to the equation, however, the value of these grad-school-oriented majors could decrease.
Consider the fields of law and pharmacy, which finished at the bottom in our study. Students in these majors borrowed, on average, four times more than their peers in 2017 — nearly $40,000, compared to just over $10,000 for all majors, according to Department of Education data.
To make matters worse, law and pharmacy students earn relatively low early career salaries (about $40,000 each), falling below the average ($42,842) for all the 64 career paths we looked at.
These professions’ savings grace, however, could be their projected mid-career salaries. Pharmacy degree holders, for example, should see their earnings multiply by threefold, to about $115,000, according to the New York Fed data.
Other majors that fell in the bottom 10 of our earnings-to-debt rankings, however, might never see that uptick in wages. For instance, education majors, which finished third-to-last on our list, would see their initial income ($36,000) climb only slightly after hitting the midpoint of their career ($45,000).
A silver lining of majors that pay off the least, however, is that they could lead to more opportunities for student loan forgiveness. Teachers, for example, have access to Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Teacher Loan Forgiveness via the Federal Student Aid office, plus state-run repayment assistance programs.
The best major for your career — and student loan repayment
Selecting a major purely for its salary prospects isn’t wise. However, choosing one without weighing the cost wouldn’t be too smart either.
If you’re currently in college or are about to enroll, you might make our earnings-to-debt ratio at least a part of your decision-making process. Considering your access to gift aid like scholarships and grants can also sway your ratio in the right direction. Then you could lessen your reliance on federal and private student loans.
If you’re worried about having picked the wrong major, consider that 30% of college students switch to another within three years of enrolling, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Plus, there are strategies for changing course without taking on more debt.
For graduates who might have regrets about how their earnings-to-debt ratio are playing out in reality, you can only stew about it for so long. Move on to practical loan-management strategies, possibly including income-driven repayment, forgiveness programs, and — if you don’t need federal loan protections — student loan refinancing, which can potentially lower your interest costs or ease your monthly payments.
Interested in refinancing student loans?Here are the top 9 lenders of 2022!
|Lender||Variable APR||Eligible Degrees|
|2.49% – 11.72%1||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.50% – 6.30%2||Undergrad & Graduate|
|4.13% – 7.39%3||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.49% – 7.99%4||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.49% – 7.99%5||Undergrad & Graduate|
|3.24% – 8.24%6||Undergrad & Graduate|
|2.48% – 7.98%||Undergrad |
|1.74% – 7.99%7||Undergrad & Graduate|
|3.69% – 9.92%8||Undergrad & Graduate|
|Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.
Splash Financial Disclosures
Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. If approved, your actual rate will be within a range of rates and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, income and other factors. Refinancing or consolidating private and federal student loans may not be the right decision for everyone. Federal loans carry special benefits not available for loans made through Splash Financial, for example, public service loan forgiveness and economic hardship programs, fee waivers and rebates on the principal, which may not be accessible to you after you refinance. The rates displayed may include a 0.25% autopay discount.
The information you provide to us is an inquiry to determine whether we or our lenders can make a loan offer that meets your needs. If we or any of our lending partners has an available loan offer for you, you will be invited to submit a loan application to the lender for its review. We do not guarantee that you will receive any loan offers or that your loan application will be approved. Offers are subject to credit approval and are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers will receive the lowest rates, which are available to the most qualified borrowers. Participating lenders, rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice.
To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Splash Financial conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, the lender will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.
Splash Financial and our lending partners reserve the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen and meet our lending partner’s underwriting requirements. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. This information is current as of September 6, 2022.
2 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.
Laurel Road Disclosures
All credit products are subject to credit approval.
Laurel Road began originating student loans in 2013 and has since helped thousands of professionals with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees consolidate and refinance more than $9 billion in federal and private school loans. Laurel Road also offers a suite of online graduate school loan products and personal loans that help simplify lending through customized technology and personalized service. In April 2019, Laurel Road was acquired by KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association, a nationally chartered bank. Member FDIC. For more information, visit www.laurelroad.com.
As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.
Assumptions: Repayment examples above assume a loan amount of $10,000 with repayment beginning immediately following disbursement. Repayment examples do not include the 0.25% AutoPay Discount.
Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.
Interest Rate: A simple annual rate that is applied to an unpaid balance.
Variable Rates: The current index for variable rate loans is derived from the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) and changes in the LIBOR index may cause your monthly payment to increase. Borrowers who take out a term of 5, 7, or 10 years will have a maximum interest rate of 9%, those who take out a 15 or 20-year variable loan will have a maximum interest rate of 10%.
KEYBANK NATIONAL ASSOCIATION RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.
This information is current as of April 29, 2021. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.
3 Important Disclosures for LendKey.
Refinancing via LendKey.com is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via LendKey.com. If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on LendKey.com reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it endorse, any educational institution.
Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of 5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.
As of 09/09/2022 student loan refinancing rates range from 4.13% APR – 7.39% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.99% APR – 9.93% Fixed APR with AutoPay.
4 Rate range above includes optional 0.25% Auto Pay discount. Important Disclosures for Earnest.
You can choose between fixed and variable rates. Fixed interest rates are 3.99% – 8.74% APR (3.74% – 8.49% APR with Auto Pay discount). Starting variable interest rates are 2.74% APR to 8.24% APR (2.49% – 7.99% APR with Auto Pay discount). Variable rates are based on an index, the 30-day Average Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) plus a margin. Variable rates are reset monthly based on the fluctuation of the index. We do not currently offer variable rate loans in AK, CO, CT, HI, IL, KY, MA, MN, MS, NH, OH, OK, SC, TN, TX, and VA.
5 Important Disclosures for Navient.
6 Important Disclosures for SoFi.
Fixed rates range from 3.99% APR to 8.24% APR with a 0.25% autopay discount. Variable rates from 3.24% APR to 8.24% APR with a 0.25% autopay discount. Unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law, Variable Interest rates on 5-, 7-, and 10-year terms are capped at 8.95% APR; 15- and 20-year terms are capped at 9.95% APR. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on the term you select, evaluation of your creditworthiness, income, presence of a co-signer and a variety of other factors. Lowest rates reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. For the SoFi variable-rate product, the variable interest rate for a given month is derived by adding a margin to the 30-day average SOFR index, published two business days preceding such calendar month, rounded up to the nearest one hundredth of one percent (0.01% or 0.0001). APRs for variable-rate loans may increase after origination if the SOFR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. This benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit lowers your interest rate but does not change the amount of your monthly payment. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance. Autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi.
7 Important Disclosures for Purefy.
Purefy Student Loan Refinancing Rate and Terms Disclosure: Annual Percentage Rates (APR) ranges and examples are based on information provided to Purefy by lenders participating in Purefy’s rate comparison platform. For student loan refinancing, the participating lenders offer fixed rates ranging from 2.73% – 7.99% APR, and variable rates ranging from 1.74% – 7.99% APR. The maximum variable rate is 25.00%. Your interest rate will be based on the lender’s requirements. In most cases, lenders determine the interest rates based on your credit score, degree type and other credit and financial criteria. Only borrowers with excellent credit and meeting other lender criteria will qualify for the lowest rate available. Rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice. Terms and conditions apply.
8 Important Disclosures for Citizens.
Education Refinance Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.69%-9.92% (3.69%-9.92% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.49%-10.11% (4.49%-10.11% APR).
Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 6.39%- 9.60% (6.39% – 9.60% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 6.58% – 9.79% (6.58% – 9.79% APR).
Graduate Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.69% – 9.16% (3.69% – 9.16% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.49% – 9.35% (4.49% – 9.35% APR).
Education Refinance Loan for Parents Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.69%- 9.09% (3.69%- 9.09% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.49% – 9.28% (4.49% – 9.28% APR).
Medical Residency Refinance Loan Rate Disclosure: Variable interest rates range from 3.69% – 9.16% (3.69% – 9.16% APR). Fixed interest rates range from 4.49% – 9.35% (4.49% – 9.35% APR).