Grand Canyon University celebrated the largest graduating class in its history during commencement ceremonies.
Is college worth it? Ranking the best and worst degrees
College tuition is on the rise: The average cost of a 4-year degree is $26,000 in the United States, 3-times more than it was in 1990. Even in-state tuition has increased 2.4-times faster than income since 2009. So what are the best and worst degrees as we head into the next decade?
The discrepancy between income and tuition growth over time means that more household income is going towards college, and now over half of families have to borrow to cover those costs.
Slow income growth compounded with student loan repayment and accruing interest could mean that graduates won’t recoup those costs very quickly.
The high cost of education begs the question: Are college degrees worth it?
In general, it seems like they are: people with a college education earn more money over their lifetime than people who never attended college, and it’s easier to get a job with a degree. According to the Center on Education in the Workforce, nearly two-thirds of jobs will require some college experience by 2028 and even those that don’t are more likely to go to people with bachelor’s degrees.
The 48% of Americans who have a bachelor’s degree might be on to something, but what about the 13% who have a graduate or professional degree? Those degrees can require an additional 2 to 10 years of schooling before graduates can start earning back the money they spent on their education.
According to an analysis by the researchers at Clever Real Estate, the free online service that connects you with top agents to save money on commissions, many graduate degrees might not be worth the investment as returns diminish the more time you spend in school.
That’s not always the case, of course, but the expense and lack of financial payoff highlight the nuance of choices when it comes to getting a college education. We’ll dive more into this later.
To explore variations within degree types – specifically bachelor’s degrees – we created a ranking system to determine the best majors based on return on investment (ROI), job opportunity, and job meaningfulness using data from PayScale, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and College Scorecard.
See the methodology section for more detail about our data and how we calculated these metrics.
• People with a bachelor’s degree earn $2.7 million more in their lifetime than high school graduates
• Spending more time in school doesn’t always pay off: the ROI of bachelor’s degrees (190%) is higher than that of master’s (142%) and doctoral degrees (88%)
• The typical student spends $29,955 on student loans and interest for a bachelor’s degree, $62,146 for a master’s degree, and $100,166 for a doctorate
• High ROI doesn’t always equate to job satisfaction: People who major in gerontology, social work, religion/religious studies, and human services find their careers most meaningful but have low ROI
• Careers related to plastics engineering, information sciences, industrial engineering, natural sciences, and operations research have high ROIs but degree holders don’t find these jobs as meaningful
• Engineering majors (ocean, architectural, systems, chemical, nuclear, and petroleum) were among the highest ROIs, but all are expected to experience slower-than-average job growth through 2028
Best and Worst Majors
• Best bachelor degrees: operations research, petroleum engineering, biological and physical sciences, biopsychology, and gerontology
• Worst bachelor degrees: interior architecture; polymer / plastics engineering; real estate; English language and literature; and communication, journalism, and related programs
• Best master’s degrees: social work, computer science, behavioral sciences, information sciences, psychology
• Worst master’s degrees: urban studies, international / global studies, anthropology, archeology, and business
• Best doctorates: psychology, business, social work, education, and religion / religious studies
• Worst doctorates: sociology, anthropology, computer science, English language and literature, and information sciences
Best and Worst Bachelor Degrees
We ranked majors based on their return on investment, opportunity growth, and meaningfulness. We included all three metrics to establish a prediction of job satisfaction and stability.
More specifically, we chose return on investment because college not only costs a lot, but also takes many years to complete. With the rising cost of college and student debt, obtaining a college degree should lead to larger returns than what is lost by attending college.
Opportunity growth – or the growth in job availability through 2028 – was included to provide a metric of a graduate’s ability to obtain a job after college, as well as his or her ability to growth professionally overtime.
Both return on investment and opportunity growth are related to financial well-being, but we also wanted to highlight the importance of having a meaningful career. People who find meaning in their jobs tend to be more engaged at work and are more satisfied with their jobs than those who don’t.
The cost of an undergraduate degree doesn’t differ much by major but income after college does, leading to large variations in returns on investment. Many of our best majors, for instance, have relatively high ROIs.
While most of our worst majors have lower ROIs than our best majors, that’s not always the case. Polymer / plastics engineering, for instance, has an ROI comparable to that of our top 5 majors.
If we only consider ROI, city / urban, community and regional planning; petroleum engineering; nuclear engineering; biopsychology; and biological and physical sciences take the cake. Each of those majors has an ROI over 269%, so students with those degrees earn at least $3.9 million more in their lifetime than someone with a high school diploma after paying for school.
On the other hand, the lowest ROIs go to social work, nutrition sciences, real estate, human services, and religion / religious studies. A religion major might only earn an extra $230,000 in their lifetime than someone who didn’t go to college.
A major’s return on investment isn’t the only characteristic people should consider when deciding upon a major, though. The ability to get and keep a job in a related field after graduation could reduce financial and emotional stress in the future.
The #1 major on our list also has the most job growth projected through 2028 at 18%. Many engineering majors – which typically result in a high monetary payoff after graduation – have low projected growth.
Slow growth in some of these engineering areas (like electrical engineering) is consistent with previous projections by the BLS. And some suggest that many of the engineering jobs are experiencing slower-than-average growth in America because companies are moving to contracted labor or hiring overseas.
Those who spend more on their bachelor’s degree find their jobs more meaningful according to our analyses. So people who want to find more meaning in their careers might be more willing to invest more without expecting (or seeking) monetary returns.
Gerontology has a relatively low ROI – especially compared to the rest of our top 5 majors – but landed the #5 spot on our list because nearly 80% of people in jobs related to gerontology find their work very meaningful.
Jobs where employees felt lower meaningfulness included computer science; communication, journalism and related programs; and plastics engineering. While technical majors like computer science tend to pay well and offer job security and opportunities, many degree holders feel a lack of connection with their work.
More generally, majors that lead to “helping” careers tend to have the highest meaningfulness ratings: gerontology, social work, religion, and human services all made the top of the list with nearly 70% or more reporting their jobs are highly meaningful.
Francesca is a Research Associate at Clever Real Estate, the free online service that connects you with top agents to save money on commissions. She focuses on helping people understand complex data, real estate, finances, business, and the economy by researching various topics, analyzing data, and reporting useful insights for general consumption. Before working at Clever, Francesca earned her PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Texas Tech University, conducted behavioral research on memory, learning, and teaching, and taught college-level research methods and statistics courses.