Engineering and healthcare majors top the list
It's no secret that college is expensive.
Both private and public institutions ranked by U.S. News saw tuition increases for the 2022-2023 academic year, according to data submitted in an annual survey. Average tuition and fees at ranked private universities was about $40,000, while ranked public universities cost nearly $23,000 for out-of-state students and $10,500 for in-state students.
In turn, the average student loan debt continues to rise, currently clocking in at about $30,000 per borrower, according to U.S. News data.
Though students may encounter difficulties paying for it, college is a worthwhile investment when done wisely, experts say. In 2021, the median weekly wage for full-time workers age 25 and older who had at least a bachelor’s degree was $1,334, compared to $809 for those with only a high school diploma and no college, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What a student studies can further affect the calculation. Certain degrees yield a better return on investment than others, according to data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM, the data shows, are among those with the highest ROI.
“STEM careers continue to offer highly competitive salaries in the job market," Jackson Gruver, a data analyst at online salary database Payscale, wrote in an email. "These 'hot' jobs rely on specialized skill sets that are hard to come by. Such talent scarcity drives up the demand for these workers along with their pay. Whether it’s engineering, medical or data sciences – these laborers will see an abundance of opportunities in the job market that compensate well."
Georgetown's CEW analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard to determine a list of 34 degrees with the highest ROI. It uses four categories to determine which degrees hold the most economic value: median monthly earnings net of debt, median monthly debt payments, median annualized earnings net of debt, and median debt.
Payscale also tracks salary data by analyzing survey results from the past 10 years of nearly 3.5 million respondents with either an associate degree or bachelor's degree, reporting both early and mid-career median pay for specific majors.
Degrees With the Highest ROI
Engineering tops both the CEW and Payscale lists for best return on investment. Engineering degree holders have median monthly earnings of $6,000, or $72,200 per year, after debt payments – which average $240 per month – have been paid off, according to CEW data. Engineering technologies/technicians ranks fourth, with median earnings of $5,100 per month or $61,800 per year, after median monthly debt payments of $230.
According to Payscale data, here are some specific engineering majors in bachelor's degree programs that result in high incomes:
Petroleum engineering: early career median pay is $99,800; mid-career median pay is $205,800.
Operations research and industrial engineering: early career median pay is 93,900; mid-career median pay is $185,300.
Electrical engineering and computer science: early career median pay is $119,200; mid-career median pay is $169,000.
Systems engineering: early career median pay is $84,700; mid-career median pay is $152,200.
Computer systems engineering: early career median pay is $87,400; mid-career median pay is $148,300.
Other 'Hot' Degrees
Degrees in various technology fields have seen significant growth in recent years, says Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and education policy at the CEW. Along with engineering technologies ranking fourth for ROI, computer and information sciences and support services ranks eighth, with median earnings of $4,400 per month, or $52,600 per year, after median monthly debt payments of $410.
The area seeing the most growth, however, is the health-care field, Van Der Werf says. Health professions and related clinical sciences ranks third on the CEW's list with median monthly earnings of $5,200 and median monthly debt of $230. Median annual pay net of debt is $61,900 with a median debt of $22,400.
“There’s been some growth, for example, in the ROI, say, of nursing, mostly because we have a nursing shortage in this country and we have an aging population," Van Der Werf says. "There’s going to be an increasing need in those areas, and when there’s a shortage of workers, it typically results in a higher pay, which then translates into a higher ROI."
Health professions are also one of the fastest growing majors, according to the federal National Center for Education Statistics. From the 2009-2010 academic year to the 2019-2020 academic year, the number of students majoring in health professions and related programs grew by more than 100,000 students.
"Health-care practitioners tend to have some of the lowest unemployment rates, and wages for these occupations are very competitive," Gruver says. "Those with specialized skills in this field, such as anesthesia or advanced nursing certificates, will find further job security, high pay and pay increases."
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the number of students interested in health-related fields to continue growing, says Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University. There are two main reasons for that, he says: job growth and students looking for a sense of purpose in their career. "There are different avenues where you can make a difference," he says. "You can be a nurse, a doctor, a social worker, a public health person. The field does offer you a variety of ways you can improve someone’s health and well being."
Overall employment in health-care occupations is projected to grow 13% from 2021 to 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is much faster than the average for other professions and is expected to result in about two million new jobs over the decade.
Skills That Add Value
While students may be tempted to pursue majors based on their earnings potential, Van Der Werf says they should start by figuring out what they're interested in. Further, students may not possess both the interest and technical skills to perform well in a STEM major, but that doesn't mean they can't carve out a career in a STEM field or other field that pays well.
Many companies feel they get enough applicants with solid technical skills, but what they’re looking for are people with communication skills as well, Van Der Werf says. This is a way for students with more of a liberal arts skill set to break into a STEM industry. Students can also take classes or choose a minor that can help them develop useful skills.
"They’re looking not only to hire top-notch scientists,” Van Der Werf says, “but they’re also looking, to some degree, for people who have good oral and written communication skills, who can help their companies translate the science into sales, into communications with the public, and into communications with other companies.”
There is a lot of need for various skill sets in the health-care field as well, Khubchandani says, including technology and communication skills. Students with strong analytical skills provide value to any job, he says.
“It’s a welcome change that anyone can be a health-care professional with on-the-job training or some sort of training or an associate’s degree," he says. "STEM and health will always have doors open for all kinds of people if they’re passionate.”