Engineering

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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