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Worst Paying College Majors


Recently a piece on the "Worst Paying College Majors" in the Huffington Post and later on Yahoo! received a lot of attention. The list of "Worst Paying College Majors" came from our annual PayScale College Salary Report.

People both hotly debated and amicably agreed upon the list of majors via 1000+ comments at the end of the Huffington Post piece. In this article I will discuss two of these comments and address misconceptions some Huffington Post readers have.

Are you curious whether you are paid what you're worth, given the major and career you chose? Find out with a free PayScale Salary Report.

Question 1: Career Choice vs. Undergraduate Major

"PeterPauze", commenting on the Huffington Post, didn't like PayScale's ranking of majors by pay:

Do You Know What You're Worth?

"First, these sorts of lists are amazingly misleading because they have little to do with what degrees you have earned and everything to do with what career you have chosen. They apparently assume that all colleges are trade schools and that if you get a bachelor's degree in, say, history it's because you want to be a professional historian, or if you get a bachelor's degree in theatre it's because you want to be a professional actor. Nonsense.

I teach at a liberal arts college and that's simply not how it works. Very few of our graduates end up in a career that "matches" their college major, very few of them ever intended to do so, and that's not only okay, it's terrific! We're not cranking out drones to work in some white collar factory, we're preparing human beings to think and problem solve and communicate and change careers (as they grow and mature) and to be active citizens of a free society, and EVERY degree we offer does that.

Second, I'd really like to see a list someday that correlates job satisfaction and general happiness with both college degree and career choices. The assumption that earning more money makes you happier and/or your life more worthwhile is, of course, idiocy, and the smarmy implication of this article that people are fools to do what they love rather than what makes them wealthy is insulting."

There are several interesting points here that need comment.

First of all, the worst paid majors list explicitly does not assume a career goes with the major. The pay is across all employed people with the major, not majors who work in specific jobs.

There are majors – Elementary Education, Social Work, Business Administration, Journalism, Engineering – which are pre-professional (pejoratively "trade school" degrees); the undergraduate education is direct training for a specific career. For these, there is a strong relationship between major and job – though it is not 100%. For example, many journalism majors do not work as journalists, and the pay for that major's graduates is higher because of this.

It is interesting that many of the very lowest starting pay majors are actually pre-professional degrees. Only Spanish and perhaps Religious Studies are not direct preparation for a career with only an undergraduate degree. The other majors on the list are preparation for specific careers: just not for ones that generally pay well.

PeterPauze talks about the value of a liberal arts education, and commenters were surprised that many classic "liberal arts" – not trained for any specific careers – majors like English and Psychology are not at the bottom of the PayScale list.

The reason for this is simple. Because these majors are not pre-professional degrees, people with these majors take a wide variety of career paths after college, with a wide variety of future pay. As many have commented, these majors may end up in banking, sales, marketing, etc., any of which can lead to a good salary.

Does this mean all liberal arts majors are equal when it comes to pay? No: pay after graduation is still correlated with major, even when the major is not preparation for a career.

For example, economics is a purely "liberal arts" (not trade school) major. With only an undergraduate degree, one can rarely work as an economist – at least a master's degree is often required and thus these employees are not included in our study (see the Methodology).

While Economics majors are not as well paid as some engineers right after college – largely because the econ majors do not have any particular training for a specific job – economics majors still end up in the top 5 for mid-career pay.

Every college degree, pre-professional or liberal arts, prepares students at some level to think, problem solve, and communicate. The majors are just not all equal in preparing students, on average, for doing these in a way that is rewarded financially in our culture.

That is the point of this major salary ranking. Parents and students should be aware of the substantial earnings differences. Armed with this knowledge, they can then make their education and career choices according to their values, whether they be financial, intellectual or social.

I agree with PeterPauze that money is not the same as career satisfaction. However, as someone who enjoyed both physics and philosophy in college, I am pretty happy that I decided to pursue careers based on physics, rather than philosophy, where the money is generally better. Some interests make a better avocation than vocation.

As someone who also has had a job that was a "social good" (college professor at a non-profit university) for less money and has worked for companies that are interested in earning a profit (Microsoft and now PayScale), job satisfaction also does not come naturally from the jobs that pay less. I am having more fun now at PayScale than I did while a professor. Since PeterPauze is on a faculty, he can probably guess why.


Question 2: Pay for Actors vs. Pay for Drama Majors

"Seedoubleyou" was unhappy with the high pay we reported for drama majors:

"I think the thespian salary estimate is way out of whack. Most actors I know make less than 15Gs a year. I'm wondering if the average salary curve isn't being pumped up by the very few big stars who make millions?

I'm really talking about WORKING actors. I don't consider a theater major who works in an office to be an actor any more than a person who gets a degree in Film is automatically a Director. I have a friend who says he manages to survive on two commercials a year which brings him about 12-15 grand depending on residuals. And yes, he lives with his parents. (He had one great year when he was had recurring role on a major series, but that was a long time ago)."

There are two misconceptions in this comment:

  1. These are people who majored in drama, not people who *work* as actors. Most full-time employed theater majors after college do not work as actors.
  2. The pay reported is the median (half make less and half make more), not a mean (sum of all earnings divided by number of people), hence it cannot be "pumped up" by a few high earners.

I agree that the median pay of actors, as actors, is very low. If you include everyone who says they are an actor, the median is probably $0: at least half of self-declared "actors" made $0 in the last year as actors.

Even if you limit the definition of an actor to ones who were paid something in the last year to act, the median is likely still to be well under $10,000/year.

However, this report is on what drama majors earn, no matter what job they have after college. Most Drama major graduates are not working as actors, and the jobs they are doing pay much better than being the typical (median pay) actor.

Hence drama, while it appears to be a pre-professional major which trains students for careers as actors, is de facto a liberal arts degree, leading most often to jobs for which the training is not directly relevant.

What type of pay can you expect with your career choice? For powerful salary data and comparisons customized for your exact position or job offer, be sure to build a complete profile by taking PayScale's Full Salary Survey.


Al Lee


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