The Most Profitable 4-Year College Degrees

May 25, 2011

The value of a college degree can't necessarily be measured in dollars. However, in these tough economic times, many people want to know how much earning power they might get from their education. Read on to learn about today's best-paying bachelor's degrees and the long-term salary prospects in their fields.

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Which College Degrees Pay Off Financially?

Still haven't chosen a college major? There are many factors to consider, including your skills and personal goals. For many students, potential earning power and signing bonuses are a key element in this decision as well.

According to the 2013-2014 PayScale College Report, the following bachelor's degrees lead to the highest starting salaries:

Degree Starting Median Salary
Petroleum Engineering $103,000
Chemical Engineering $68,200
Nuclear Engineering $67,600
Computer Engineering $65,300
Electrical Engineering $64,300
Aerospace Engineering $62,800
Materials Science & Engineering $62,700
Industrial Engineering $61,100
Mechanical Engineering $60,900
Software Engineering $60,500

Source: 2013-2014 PayScale College Salary Report (www.payscale.com).

Many of these fields have stayed consistently profitable through the recession - although their order in the table has shifted, various engineering degrees continue to dominate the top 10. Meanwhile, subjects like finance, accounting and marketing have disappeared from the list.

What about the long-term earning prospects of the top fields? According to the 2013-2014 PayScale College Salary Report, the outlook is pretty good. Here are the top 10 majors ranked in order of salary potential.

Major Starting Median Salary Mid-Career Median Salary (15 yrs.)
Petroleum Engineering $103,000 $160,000
Actuarial Mathematics $58,700 $120,000
Nuclear Engineering $67,600 $117,000
Chemical Engineering $68,200 $115,000
Aerospace Engineering $62,800 $109,000
Electrical Engineering $64,300 $106,000
Computer Engineering $65,300 $106,000
Computer Science $59,800 $102,000
Physics $53,100 $101,000
Mechanical Engineering $60,900 $99,700

Source: 2013-2014 PayScale College Salary Report (www.payscale.com).

As you can see, some of the top 10 fields for new graduates see higher salary gains over time than others. The numbers fluctuate depending on our economy and the demand for these careers.

Potential Signing Bonuses for 2013-2014 Graduates by Industry

Are you looking to receive an immediate payout for your education? The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports the following industries as having the highest signing bonuses for upcoming 2013-2014 graduates:

Industry % Offering Signing Bonuses
Chemical (Pharmaceutical) Mfg. 85.7%
Management Consulting 70%
Transportation 50%
Utilities 50%
Retail Trade 50%
Computer & Electronics Mfg. 46.7%
Motor Vehicle Mfg. 42.9%
Misc. Prof. Services 42.9%
Construction 42.9%
Engineering Services 40%

Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers (www.naceweb.org).

As you can see, there are other industries that offer instant potential for earnings if you're pursuing a career in one of those fields. If you plan on getting into the chemical (pharmaceutical) manufacturing or management consulting industries, there's a good chance you'll receive a signing bonus.

So what's the take-home message of these facts? If you're seeking to maximize your earning potential, study an engineering sub-field. The industry offers longevity, high salaries and many exciting careers to choose from. For upcoming engineering graduates, there's also an opportunity to receive signing bonuses, as 40% of employers offer this perk.

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