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College Degrees With the Highest and Lowest Starting Salaries

It’s a wise financial move to earn a bachelor’s degree. People with college degrees earn median weekly wages of $1,227, compared with median weekly earnings of just $678 for folks with high school degrees.
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However, not all college degrees come with the same benefits. Just as some schools offer a better return on investment than others, some degrees are more likely to lead to high paychecks. Of course, selecting the career that’s right for you is about more than just money. But, it’s always a good idea to know what you’re getting into.

Now, new research conducted by Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI) and presented by Forbes has determined the degrees with the highest and lowest starting salaries in 2017. They used data collected from nearly 200 career service centers and 4,350 employers to compile their report.

Money isn't everything when it comes to choosing a major, but it sure helps when the time comes to pay off those student loans.Click To Tweet

Let’s take a look at the three degrees with the highest and the lowest starting salaries and use PayScale’s data to consider the career trajectories associated with these degrees.

Degrees with the highest salaries:

1. Electrical Engineering

A degree in electrical engineering was determined to be associated with the highest starting salaries. Electrical engineers earn an average salary of $72,602 per year, according to PayScale data. Other jobs associated with this degree, like hardware design engineer and senior project engineer pay even more. The salary range for men with this degree is $66,412 – $129,231. And for women, who are considerably underrepresented in the field — just 14 percent — earnings range from $56,621 – $106,583.

2. Software Design

A focus on software design could lead to some pretty lucrative opportunities. Software designers earn an average salary of $78,000 a year. Other related jobs, like lead software engineer and java developer also pay more than $70,000 a year. The software design path is male-dominated, as was true with electrical engineering. Seventy-four percent of the software designers who have participated in PayScale’s Salary Survey are male.

3. Chemical Engineering

Men also outnumber women in the field of chemical engineering. Seventy percent of degree holders are male and they can expect to earn between $67,909 and $130,000 per year. Women’s salary range in this occupation is $38,237 – $136,095, according to the PayScale’s data. Working chemical engineers also do well, earning a median salary of $72,707 per year. Other jobs like senior environmental engineer and senior chemical engineer are also high-paying and associated with this degree.

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Degrees with the lowest salaries:

1. Pre-K & Kindergarten Education

The jobs associated with a degree in early childhood education do not pay well. In fact, this degree leads to the lowest starting salaries on the list. Preschool teachers earn an average salary of $12.36 per hour. Other education degrees are also represented on the lowest-salary list. Elementary education degrees were fourth and special education degrees came in at fifth place.

2. Social Work

A bachelor’s degree in social work is also associated with a low starting salary. As with education, these degree holders are mainly female. Eighty-eight percent of PayScale’s respondents in this occupation were women. Social workers earn an average salary of just $43,619 on average. The salaries for licensed clinical social workers and child, family, and school social worker, which are on this career track, are somewhat higher but still relatively low compared with other professionals with similar amounts of education and training.

3. Anthropology/Sociology

Seventy-one percent of students graduating with a degree in anthropology and sociology are female. The jobs associated with this degree are relatively low-paying. Anthropologists earn an average salary of $49,750. Sociologists can expect to earn a median salary of $51,204. As with other careers on the list, many of the folks who work in those jobs also earned master’s degrees or PhD’s, which helped to bring their salaries up from what they would have earned with a bachelor’s degree.

Tell Us What You Think

Is your degree associated with an especially low or high starting salary? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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