We like the idea of following a passion and making money. However, it’s important to take into account whether you’re able to support yourself with a college major and whether you’ll even be able to find work. Unfortunately, some of the worst college majors for earning money can also be among the most appealing.
Using 2018 data (the latest available) from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the Department of Education, we have a list of the 15 worst majors, based on the median annual earnings for those aged 25 to 29. While these aren’t useless majors, it’s important to consider the realities of the situation as you decide what path to pursue moving forward.
With that in mind, here’s our list of the worst college majors by earnings, along with a similar list for unemployment, and some advice on how to balance passion with pay:
- 15 worst college majors, by median earnings
- 10 worst majors by average unemployment
- What to do if your major is one of the ‘worst’
- Do your homework to avoid the worst college majors
When looking at a four-year undergraduate degree, there are many factors to consider. If you’re concerned about earnings, though, the worst college degrees might be those with lower compensation. The list below is based on data from NCES, PayScale and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Realize, though, that even the worst degrees to get have some value, and salary is based on a variety of factors, including geography, experience and other skills you might have. The numbers presented here aren’t necessarily your destiny.
Remember, too, that these numbers are based on those with undergraduate four-year degrees. You might earn a different salary if you have a graduate degree, and on the other hand, you could also make a good living by getting a less-expensive vocational or associate degree.
Finally, you can also consider the unemployment rate for your chosen profession. A separate list below uses a New York Federal Reserve study on unemployment rates for recent college grads based on degree.
Let’s start with college majors based on median earnings, from bad to worst (and note the three-way tie for second place):
15. Multi/interdisciplinary studies
14. Physical sciences
13. Communications and communications technologies
12. Physical fitness, parks, recreation and leisure
11. Linguistics and comparative language and literature
9. English language and literature
7. Criminal justice
5. General education
2. (tie) Fine arts
2. (tie) Elementary education
2. (tie) Social work and human services
1. Liberal arts and humanities
There are a variety of jobs you can do with this type of degree, ranging from pre-K instructor to human resources coordinator. You might also become a legal assistant with this degree, a job with a growth outlook that is faster than normal.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $47,800
Average salary: $55,636
Average unemployment rate: 5%
Better alternative: The average salary isn’t much higher than what you might get at the outset of your career. Choosing a more specialized degree, like marketing, finance or even computer and information services could yield a higher salary and the potential for lower unemployment.
A general physical sciences degree can allow you to do various jobs, including research and laboratory technician. The potential for future earnings can be significant, though, depending on the route you take. However, jobs like chemical technician are only expected to grow as fast as average between 2019 and 2029.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $47,600
Average salary: $78,297
Average unemployment rate: 2.5%
Better alternative: Even though the unemployment rate is relatively low, this is still one of the worst college degrees for those aged 25 to 29. If you’re interested in making more money earlier, you might consider a general degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, or even switch to a specific degree one on those areas. Becoming a little more specialized could lead to a higher salary at the outset.
Communications is a fairly utilitarian degree that allows for flexibility and the ability to do many different jobs, including those in marketing, sales, journalism and more. Additionally, it can provide a base for continuing education, such as going to law school or getting an MBA.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $45,600
Average salary: $60,616
Average unemployment rate: 3.6%
Better alternative: If you enjoy communications and explaining concepts to others, you might do better with an economics degree. The starting median salary there is $64,900, and the growth outlook for that job is much higher than average. Plus, the overall average salary for an economist is more than $75,000.
On the bright side, this type of degree gives you the chance to be involved in various programs for health and wellness, or leisure and recreation. The BLS also reports that the job growth outlook for recreation workers is 10% from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than average.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $45,500
Average salary: $53,938
Average unemployment rate: 3.7%
Better alternative: Besides being the worst college majors for median pay in your 20s, this field has an average salary that doesn’t go up as much as with some of the other careers on this list. Switching to a major like government or health services could potentially open the door to a higher salary.
If you become fluent in another language as part of this degree, you could actually do quite well in the long run. The BLS reports that the growth outlook for translators and interpreters is 20% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than average.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $45,400
Average salary: $63,711
Average unemployment rate: 3.3%
Better alternative: Because the starting salary might be low, another alternative might be marketing and research, where the median salary for those ages 25 to 29 is $52,200.
With a history degree, you might be able to get a job as a park ranger or museum archivist. Librarians and writers might also thrive with history degrees. Interestingly, the job growth outlook for librarians, according to the BLS, is a little faster than average for 2019 through 2029.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $45,100
Average salary: $66,104
Average unemployment rate: 3.8%
Better alternative: If you like history, you might see a better return from a degree in political science or government — for ages 25 to 29, the salary is $50,600. Meanwhile, PayScale reports that the average salary for those who have a government degree is more than $72,506 per year.
There are a number of jobs you can do with an English degree, including many in communications and journalism. And if you plan to go to law school, English is considered one of the best foundations.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $44,600
Average salary: $60,423
Average unemployment rate: 4.5%
Better alternative: If you’re not headed to law school, and you enjoy aspects of the English language, you might actually consider a business degree, which offers a median salary of more than $50,000 among those aged 25 to 29.
Jobs you can do with this degree include those in the nonprofit sector, such as coordinator or director. You could also potentially be a human resources generalist with this degree. While sociologists can make more money than many other jobs with this major, you often need a graduate degree to work as a sociologist.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $43,100
Average salary: $60,689
Average unemployment rate: 5.1%
Better alternative: If you’re interested in community health outcomes, then instead of focusing on sociology, you might consider studying general medical and health services. In this case, those aged 25 to 29 have a median income of more than $50,000 a year. Additionally, a degree in the health services professions has a lower unemployment rate of 3.9%.
With a criminal justice degree, you might be able to join a police force and become a detective, or even work for a federal government agency like the FBI. You might also become a security guard or a fire inspector.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $41,800
Average salary: $57,871
Average unemployment rate: 4.3%
Better alternative: If you’re interested in law enforcement, but concerned that criminal justice is one of the worst majors for pay, you might consider finance or accounting. You could work in white-collar law enforcement. Additionally, foreign language degrees could help you if you want to work in government. Those who major in a foreign language also have lower unemployment (at 3.3%), while accounting degrees come with an even lower unemployment rate (2.4%).
One of the issues with majoring in psychology is that the highest-paying jobs, like a psychologist, require an advanced degree. Often you need a Ph.D., although you might be able to do some jobs with a master’s degree. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, however, you can still get a range of jobs from case manager (which pays less than average) to advertising (which might pay more than average).
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $41,400
Average salary: $61,500
Average unemployment rate: 3.9
Better alternative: Because psychology is one of the worst college majors for pay, it could be worth looking into other majors that offer some flexibility and broader applications. For example, marketing research degrees include similar opportunities to psychology, but the median salary for those aged 25 to 29 is a more robust $52,200.
Depending on the situation, you could work in a variety of settings with a general education degree. You may be able to teach at the secondary level, which could pay more than at an elementary school (see “Elementary education” below). Additionally, if you can get an endorsement, such as one to teach gifted students, you might also be able to earn more.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $41,300
Average salary: $49,000
Average unemployment rate: 1.7%
Better alternative: All education majors have a relatively low unemployment rate. However, the pay is generally lower as well. Rather than teaching, you might be able to make as much as $69,000 a year by working for a test prep company like Kaplan — if you can show some results.
Fine arts is another degree that encompasses a number of possibilities. Depending on the situation and where you live, you might be able to get involved with nonprofit agencies and councils, teach drama or music or engage in other artistic activities.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $40,500
Average salary: $57,046
Average unemployment rate: 5.1%
Better alternative: Switching to an advertising major could take your career on a more lucrative path. For example, the average salary for an art director with advertising agency skills is over $64,000, according to PayScale. Additionally, commercial art and graphic design has a higher median starting salary for those between ages 25 and 29, at $48,100.
Education majors routinely rank fairly low in terms of worst college majors for pay. Elementary education is generally at or near the bottom of the payscale, even though we often say that education is a priority. The outlook for growth is on pace with other occupations, at 4% between 2019 and 2029.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $40,500
Average salary: $46,278
Average unemployment rate: 1.7%
Better alternative: Rather than sticking with elementary school teaching, it can make sense to look into training and development, including curriculum development. PayScale reports the average salary for a training and development manager is $76,682, while the BLS reports that the job growth outlook for that position is much faster than average.
Social workers focus on helping people work on various problems that occur in their daily lives. This is a job that’s projected to grow at a rapid rate, by 13% from 2019 to 2029, but it doesn’t always offer the pay that one might consider commensurate with the demand.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $40,500
Average salary: $47,875
Average unemployment rate: 3.1%
Better alternative: Rather than studying specifically to be a social worker, consider getting a sociology degree. The BLS reports that the job growth outlook is about the same as most other careers, but the average salary is higher, according to PayScale, at more than $57,000.
A general liberal arts degree can allow you to participate in a wide range of careers, according to Monster.com. These include translation, writing, legal assisting, advertising and more. Depending on the job you take, you might end up with higher earnings and better opportunities for job growth — for example, the BLS reports that advertising, promotions and marketing managers could see 6% growth between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than average.
Median starting salary (ages 25 to 29): $40,300
Average salary: $59,972
Average unemployment rate: 4.3%
Better alternative: Rather than getting a general liberal arts degree, consider getting a more specialized degree. For instance, the average salary for a public relations manager is more than $69,000 per year and the unemployment rate is 3%. Likewise, economics majors have a median salary of $64,900 for those aged 25 to 29, with a comparable unemployment rate of 4.2%.
As noted above, it’s not just about salaries. If you can’t find work in your chosen profession, then salaries won’t matter. Here are the 10 worst majors in terms of unemployment:
Source: New York Federal Reserve, July 2020, via Statista
There are no truly useless majors, but there are some programs of study that won’t translate into high earnings. Then again, money isn’t always the most important consideration.
Some of the worst college majors for pay (like elementary education) are also majors that have very low unemployment rates, meaning you’re likely to find a job. On top of that, some professions might have hidden financial benefits, such as student loan forgiveness for teachers and public servants.
Here are three possible moves to look at if your major is on the list above:
Consider a double major
If you really enjoy your field of study but are concerned that it won’t pay well, consider a double major. That way, you can get two degrees at once, with your second degree potentially leading to a better paying job. Later, you might be able to switch careers if you gain some experience that can be combined with your less-lucrative degree to get a different job.
Talk to alumni
Reach out to your school’s alumni network to find out what jobs are available for graduates with your major. Find out whether they enjoy their work, or if they were even able to find jobs related to their area of study. Based on what you hear, it might be time to switch majors if you have time to do so. And if you decide not to switch, making connections with alumni can help you find better jobs after you graduate, no matter your degree.
Visit your school’s career center
The college career center can be a big help in letting you see what’s available and assisting you in planning your next step. You can also get an idea of whether it makes sense to change majors. You don’t have to stay with your major if you decide it’s not going to help you reach your financial goals.
Before you choose a major, take a step back and do some research. Look at which majors are likely to offer the highest return on your investment. You can also compare what you can expect to make with how much student loan debt you may collect if you pursue a certain major.
Consider switching majors if you’re not sure your chosen career is the right path. You could always major in something more lucrative while minoring in something you enjoy.
Rebecca Saifer contributed to this report.
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