The 15 college majors with the biggest payoffs

August 22, 2012: 10:07 AM ET

To get the best financial return on an investment in four years of college, says an exhaustive new study, it helps to have a head for numbers.

By Anne Fisher

FORTUNE -- Headed back to school, and uncertain what to major in? It might help to check out a hefty new paperback tome, College Majors Handbook with Real Career Paths and Payoffs. The 546-page book is packed with detailed career information on 58 majors, including the kinds of jobs each major is likely to lead to; how closely related grads' work usually is to the subjects they studied; how much (or little) degree holders in each field report enjoying what they do; and how much they earn.

The four co-authors — led by Drexel University research professor Neeta P. Fogg and by Paul Harrington, director of Drexel's Center for Labor Markets and Policy — mined the data from mountains of Census Bureau statistics, U.S. Department of Labor studies, and a 2011 National Science Foundation survey of 170,000 college grads.

Median pay for a recent college graduate with a full-time job in 2010, the researchers found, stood at $53,976. But these 15 majors commanded substantially more:

1. Pre-med $100,000
2. Computer systems engineering $85,000
3. Pharmacy $84,000
4. Chemical engineering $80,000
5. Electrical and electronics engineering $75,000
6. Mechanical engineering $75,000
7. Aerospace and aeronautical engineering $74,000
8. Computer science $73,000
9. Industrial engineering $73,000
10. Physics and astronomy $72,200
11. Civil engineering $70,000
12. Electrical and electronics engineering technology $65,000
13. Economics $63,300
14. Financial management $63,000
15. Mechanical engineering technology $63,000

Clearly, engineers are hot properties, but even the five non-engineering majors on the list require a strong mathematical bent. What if you're not inclined toward math and science? Luckily for liberal arts mavens, College Majors Handbook notes, "Salary is not the only form of payoff from a college education."

Consider: Despite relatively modest median pay of $44,000, well below the roughly $54,000 average for all 58 fields of study, English majors report job satisfaction that is on a par with that of people who make far more money. Likewise, recent grads who majored in history, although they earn $48,000 on average — and often end up working in unrelated fields like sales and marketing — report higher-than-average satisfaction with their chosen path.

Moreover, even at the lower end of the salary scale, the authors point out, higher education leads to more earning power: "The average employed young person with a bachelor's degree earned 81% more in 2011 than his or counterpart with a high school diploma. The earnings premium of individuals with college degrees persists over their lifetime." Given the often jaw-dropping price tag on a sheepskin these days, that's good to know.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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