The Most Regretted College Majors – and the Least

Economics/engineering majors out-earn sociology/English majors by more than 40%

About 19.7 million students were matriculated in college last fall. For many of them returning this year, decision time is looming–time to choose a college major and prepare for a career.

Increasingly, there are many public resources that allow students to compare lifetime earnings trajectories across majors and degree types. The U.S. Education Department has released troves of data through a browsable, interactive website that shows how much money students borrow and later earn, by college major, university, and even program. 

The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution has also produced a web tool that allows students to compare lifetime earnings trajectories across majors and degree types. One key takeaway: economics/engineering majors out-earn sociology/English majors by more than 40%, on average. Put differently, the top-paying college majors (in STEM fields, health, and business) earn $3.4 million more than the lowest-paying majors over a lifetime. 

The Most-Regretted College Majors, According to ZipRecruiter’s College Grads Survey

Source: ZipRecruiter survey of 5,225 job seekers who were active on the platform in June 2019, and who self-identified as college graduates.

The Least-Regretted College Majors, According to ZipRecruiter’s College Grads Survey

Source: ZipRecruiter survey of 5,225 job seekers who were active on the platform in June 2019, and who self-identified as college graduates.

It is More Difficult to Evaluate College Majors Holistically 

Average earnings shouldn’t be the only consideration, however. Plenty of high-paying occupations may soon be going extinct, due to changes in technology, culture, policy and consumer preferences. 

Degrees may also change in value as the economy changes. For example, after the Great Recession, the likelihood of being underemployed was lower for graduates with more quantitatively oriented and occupation-specific majors than for those with degrees in general fields. Rather than fixating on earnings alone, students should therefore consider earnings in addition to other measures, such as those captured by ZipRecruiter’s Skills Index

The ZipRecruiter Skills Index measures the value of different job skills on a scale from 0 to 100 and includes data on 1,466 skills from more than 30 million ZipRecruiter job postings in 2017 and 2018. It ranks job skills based on (1) the number of jobs to which they provide access, (2) the geographic breadth of those job opportunities, (3) how quickly those opportunities are growing or declining, and (4) the average salaries advertised in recent job postings that require them.

The Top Three Most Valuable College Degrees, According to the ZipRecruiter Skills Index

Below are the top-scoring college majors in the index, along with median annual earnings associated with them, based on wages or salaries advertised in the subset of jobs that list a bachelor’s degree as a requirement. 

1. Computer Science 
Overall index score: 82/100
Median annual earnings: $83k   

In a digitized world, turning ideas into products and services increasingly requires computer science skills, but only 3.7% of college students are computer and information sciences majors. So if you can hack the homework, the major can put you at a distinct advantage in the labor market and provide access to a rapidly expanding array of highly paid jobs around the globe. 

ZipRecruiter recently conducted a survey of more than 5,000 job seekers who are college graduates and found that computer science is the major least likely to be regretted later. Only 13% of computer science/mathematics majors said they regretted their choice, compared with 42% of graduates who majored in English and foreign languages. With the benefit of hindsight, about 11% of all survey respondents who chose other majors now wish they had chosen computer science instead. 

2. Bachelor of Science in Nursing
Overall index score: 73/100
Median annual earnings: $80k   

Healthcare is projected to add more jobs between 2016 and 2026 than any other industry. It even grew 5% during the recession, while other parts of the economy were hemorrhaging jobs. The median annual wage for college-educated healthcare practitioners (such as registered nurses, physicians and surgeons, and dental hygienists) was $66,440 in 2018, which was far higher than the median annual wage for all occupations in the economy of $38,640.

That said, students should know what to expect if they major in biology without pursuing another degree or qualification afterwards. A full 35% of biology majors in ZipRecruiter’s college graduate survey said they regretted their major choice, and the most common reason they provided is that it is difficult to find good jobs in the healthcare sector without further degrees, certifications or licenses.  

3. Economics/Business Management and Administration
Overall index score: 62/100
Median annual earnings: $55k

Like the healthcare sector, the professional and business services sector is adding jobs at a rapid pace, and the share of all workers employed in the sector is at an all-time high. Wages in many business-related occupations are also far above average, so majoring in business increasingly looks like a solid investment. 

By and large, business majors tend to be happy with their choice. ZipRecruiter’s college graduate survey found that business is the second-least regretted college major, behind computer science and narrowly ahead of engineering. Only 16% of respondents said they regretted the choice. 

Course and Major Choices Can Make or Break the College Experience  

College is an investment with a return of about 14% on average, according to research by the New York Federal Reserve Bank. But it really depends on the individual. College degrees pay off for most students in the form of higher salaries and wealth, but they are not a guaranteed path to prosperity

Choosing the right college major can make all the difference.

Written by

Julia Pollak is Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter. She leads ZipRecruiter's economic research team, which provides insights and analysis on current labor market trends and the future of work.

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