Top 15 Hardest College Majors in 2021 by GPA & Other Factors

Top 15 Hardest College Majors in 2021 by GPA & Other Factors
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

There is no definite way to tell what the hardest college majors are. This varies from student to student and depends largely on one’s cognitive capacity and learning strengths. Several factors will also come into play in an individual’s educational outcomes. That said, this document is not intended to discourage prospective students from taking the hardest college majors ranked on the list. Rather, it serves as a guide for managing expectations and planning ahead.

In this guide, the majors in the list were determined by looking at three indicators: (1) the average grade point average (GPA) of students in that major, (2) the number of hours students with that major reportedly spent studying, and (3) the total number of degrees awarded in that particular major in 2019. For the first indicator, data from the University of California Berkeley, A.Y. 2020-2021 was used. For the second, data was sourced from Statista and Indiana University’s National Survey of Student Engagement. Lastly, DataUSA.io was used to obtain the number of degrees granted for each of these majors.

Hopefully, the information laid out in this document will help you decide which college degree is the right one for you.

Top 15 Hardest College Majors Table of Contents

  1. Chemistry
  2. Environmental Economics and Policy
  3. Environmental Earth Science
  4. American Studies
  5. Nuclear Engineering
  6. Energy Engineering
  7. Astrophysics
  8. Applied Mathematics
  9. Interdisciplinary Studies
  10. Genetics and Plant Biology
  11. Marine Science
  12. Cognitive Science
  13. Political Economy
  14. South and Southeast Asian Studies
  15. Legal Studies
  16. Computer Science

Factors that Make a College Major Difficult

There are a set of challenges that every student will encounter in studying their college majors. Often, individual differences account for why some students are finding it harder than others to pass undergraduate courses. It may be that instruction does not match their learning style or they take little to no interest in the subjects.

Personal challenges can also affect an individual’s capacity to keep up academically. This is especially true given today’s circumstances amid the COVID-19 pandemic. If one does not have the financial and technological resources required for e-learning, it can definitely cause psychological distress that can then affect their studies.

College difficulty is subjective, given the above rationale in the sense that it varies per individual. However, it is also tied with the objective, concrete socio-political realities that students are bound to. It is important to recognize these factors before proceeding to rank college majors based on quantified, somewhat easier to grasp, indicators. For starters, one can rank the hardest college majors by GPA, time spent studying, and the number of graduates.

Again, educational outcomes will vary per individual. This means that one may get a higher or lower GPA than the average, may spend more or less time studying than the average student, and may need more or fewer years to complete an entire degree program. In the next sections, lower GPA, more time studying, and fewer graduates correspond to greater college major difficulty for the average student.

This data can help inform prospective students of the adjustments they need to make given their personal circumstances. They can use this to plan their schedules ahead around the average time spent studying for their target college major before proceeding on to adjusting based on their needs and preferences. The average GPA data can help students set academic goals and the number of graduates can help them identify percentages of success in their degree programs.

Source: University of California Berkeley, A.Y. 2020-2021

1. Chemistry

Average GPA: 2.77

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 18.06

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 22,156

A bachelor’s degree in chemistry is a good preparatory program for students who are aiming for jobs in the medical and natural sciences. In the course of their studies, they will learn how to use laboratory equipment, understand solutions and compounds, analyze substances, and conduct experiments and research studies related to chemistry. After acquiring a degree, they may choose to become chemists, laboratory specialists, researchers, or teachers, to name a few career paths. They may also pursue further studies and specialize in one area of chemistry.

Chemist jobs are projected to grow by 7% between the years 2020 and 2030 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). The median annual salary for chemists and materials scientists is $80,680 in 2020 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

2. Environmental Economics and Policy

Average GPA: 2.95

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 15.3

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 9,522

Environmental Economics and Policy degree programs are aimed at educating students about the human behaviors that affect natural resources and the environment and the policies that govern human and institutional environment-related actions. Typically included in the program are discussions on current environmental issues and proposed policy and management solutions.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021), the majority of environmental scientists and engineers work in the local and state governments (36%) and management, scientific, and technical consulting services (25%). They earn an average of $73,230 annually (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

3. Environmental Earth Science

Average GPA: 2.96

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 15.3

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 8,894

Students who major in environmental Earth Science examine environmental issues through an interdisciplinary lens. Their subjects include biology, chemistry, ecology, geology, and physics, to name a few. They should be comfortable working both in laboratories and in the field.

After completing their undergraduate degree, one of the environmental career options is to become a geoscientistƒmathe. Geoscientists study the entirety of the Earth, its physical structures, geologic history, and geological processes. More than one in four geoscientists are employed in architectural, engineering, and related services, with their compensation rate averaging $93,580 per year (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

4. American Studies

Average GPA: 3.12

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 14.1

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 526

American Studies majors are expected to be extensively knowledgeable about American history, arts, culture, literature, politics, and economy in the span of four years. They will learn how to analyze the socio-political, cultural, and economic dimensions of American society and write academic papers regarding these subjects. They may choose to pursue a master’s degree or a doctorate degree and become academicians. They may also pursue careers outside the academe, such as in governments, legal institutions, and the media.

On average, American studies majors earn $68,000 per year (Payscale, n.d.).

5. Nuclear Engineering

Average GPA: 3.14

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 17.17

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 1,014

With a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, students will have an understanding of the nuclear processes and systems as well as their human and environmental impacts. Acquiring this degree and passing the Professional Engineering Licensure Exam for Nuclear Engineers makes someone eligible to work for a nuclear power plant. In there, they may be tasked to monitor nuclear processes, suggest system redesigns, and ensure that standard protocols and regulations are being followed.

Nuclear engineers earn an average of $116,140 annually (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021), much higher than the average annual pay for all engineers which is only $96,310 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

Top 15 Hardest College Majors

6. Energy Engineering

Average GPA: 3.15

Number of hours college students spent studying per week: 17.17

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 31,384

Energy engineering majors study ways to lessen energy consumption or costs. As professionals, they may be tasked to design systems or processes that can solve energy efficiency issues. To do this successfully, they need to be knowledgeable in physics, mechanics, power electronics, and CAD drafting software, among others. One way they can advance their careers is to get certifications from the Association of Energy Engineers, which can serve as proof of their expertise in the skills mentioned.

Energy engineers can earn a total of $56,000 to $99,000 per year, or $71,372 on average (Payscale, n.d.).

7. Astrophysics

Average GPA: 3.29

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 18.59

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 347

An astrophysics undergraduate student must be good at science and mathematics as these subjects are foundational in their study of celestial bodies. The ultimate goal in their field is to contribute to the body of knowledge about the universe. In their line of work, they will be faced with big questions, such as what came before the Big Bang and what is inside a black hole.

This exciting field requires rigorous study but is also financially rewarding. According to Payscale, the annual salary rate for Astrophysicists positions ranges from $50,000 to $131,000 and averages $92,065. Glassdoor also reports that NASA Astrophysicists earn $127,749 per year.

8. Applied Mathematics

Average GPA: 3.32

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 16.4

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 4,391

An applied mathematics major will take subjects that are mostly computational in nature, such as algebra, calculus, and statistics. In their line of work, they will analyze data, solve problems, and aid the decision-making processes of individuals, businesses, and governments. Some of the career options for applied mathematics majors are in the industries of engineering, healthcare, financial services, and technology.

The majority of mathematicians in the United States are employed by the federal government, which pays them $115,830 annually (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). Mathematicians and statisticians earn an average of $44.85 per hour or $93,290 per year (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

Source: Statista and Indiana University’s National Survey of Student Engagement

9. Interdisciplinary Studies

Average GPA: 3.33

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 13.63

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 109,814

Institutions that offer interdisciplinary studies implement different guidelines for students. There are institutions that offer a combination of humanities and social sciences subjects and there are those that take a more liberating approach of allowing students to design their own learning track entirely. The aim of this degree program is to give the students the deciding power on what subjects they think they would need to advance the most in their professional lives.

Given the nature of the program, students can find employment almost everywhere, depending on how they tailored their learning paths. The annual salary rate for interdisciplinary studies majors ranges from $20,500 to $119,500 (Ziprecruiter, n.d.). The national average rate is $69,262 per year (Ziprecruiter, n.d.).

10. Genetics and Plant Biology

Average GPA: 3.35

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 16.7

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 25

Genetics and Plant Biology integrates traditional plant sciences with more recent developments in the field of biotechnology and gene technology. Students with this major focus on studying the genetic and biological makeup of plants to provide solutions in the fields of agriculture, nutrition, and food science. They may become agricultural and food scientists, soil and plant scientists, and environmental scientists, among others.

According to Glassdoor (n.d.), the annual salary of plant geneticists ranges from $45,000 to $130,000 and averages $76,402.

11. Marine Science

Average GPA: 3.35

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 15.72

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 45

Marine Science majors focus on studying the ocean and its organisms. Their subjects include oceanography, aquaculture, coastal processes, marine biodiversity, and research diving. Prior to graduating, students are expected to understand the importance of oceans, know important issues in the field, including marine pollution and the preservation of marine life, and be adept at interpreting data and conducting marine research. Work after college will involve a combination of laboratory and field research.

According to ZipRecruiter (n.d.), marine scientists can earn as much as $146,000 per year. The average annual salary for this position is $71,351 (ZipRecruiter, n.d.).

12. Cognitive Science

Average GPA: 3.35

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 14.82

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 2,275

Students who major in cognitive science are interested in how the mind works. Various disciplines inform their understanding of cognitive processes. They study and use theories from neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and artificial intelligence, among others. The skills they develop during their undergraduate years are most useful in the fields of medicine, marketing, and education.

Cognitive scientists can earn as much as $158,437 per year (Glassdoor, n.d.). On average, their salary rate is ​​$94,101 per year (Glassdoor, n.d.).

Source: Data USA

13. Political Economy

Average GPA: 3.35

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 14.23

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 343

Someone with a major in political economy understands how politics affect the economy and vice versa. They understand the historical, political, sociological, and cultural factors that come into play in our everyday lives. They study political and economic theories and propose ways to build more equitable and more just systems.

Political economy graduates may find job opportunities in government agencies, financial services, and education. They earn an average of $78,000 annually (Payscale, n.d.).

14. South and Southeast Asian Studies

Average GPA: 3.35

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 14.1

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 1,017

South and Southeast Asian Studies majors are primarily interested in the history, culture, literature, politics, and issues within this region. Their subjects include geography, Asian languages, political science, and comparative literature, to name a few. The field offers extensive career opportunities in the international sector.

There is a surprising difference between the salary rates for scholars specializing in South Asia and scholars specializing in Southeast Asia. The former earns around $97,000 per year, while the latter only earns $47,000 (Payscale, n.d.).

15. Legal Studies

Average GPA: 3.35

Number of hours college students spent studying per week: 13.73

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 555

With a legal studies major, an individual can pursue careers related to law, law enforcement, and public policy. They will learn how legal systems and processes work and what factors come into play. They will also develop research, writing, and organizational skills, which they will need to perform their tasks as professionals. After graduating, students may decide to take up law and undergo the bar exam conducted by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE)

Other than becoming a lawyer, another popular path for someone with this major is to become a paralegal or legal assistant. In the United States, one can earn around $52,920 per year in this job position (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).

16. Computer Science

Average GPA: 3.0

Number of hours students spent studying per week: 10.5

Total degrees awarded in 2019: 47,906

Also among the hardest college majors is computer science. A computer science degree equips students with a foundational knowledge of information technology, computing, and similar concepts. The curricula of these programs are built to exercise a student’s skills in mathematics, problem-solving, and analysis. In addition, it aims to help them develop the ability to use different programming languages needed for a career in computer science.

Once students complete a computer science program, they can gain access to job opportunities in information sciences, support services, and computer systems design. For those who choose to pursue specializations, they may also find prospects in software development and computer programming. Professionals in the industry can earn anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000 annually (Zippia, 2020).

Taking on the Challenge to Pursue a Hard College Major

In a study titled “What motivates students’ decisions on programmes to pursue at university level: the role of information and knowledge” published in Higher Education, Kelefa Mwantimwa (2021) examines the decision-making process of students and notes that,

“Despite the availability of diverse sources, the findings show that the students faced inadequacy of reliable information and knowledge needed to make worthwhile decisions. From these findings, it is undeniable that some students end up joining universities uninformed of the programmes they are to pursue and without a rationale for pursuing a particular programme. This was attributed to various factors such as inadequate professional and career development knowledge. In fact, career and professional programmes in schools are limited. As such, information and knowledge on higher education, academic programmes are not accessible to students completing secondary school education. Worse still, the information and knowledge accessed by students are not reliable and comprehensive to equip them with the ability to make sound decisions regarding their career paths.”

This is unfortunate because choosing a college major is one of the most important life decisions an individual will make. We hope that the information in this article gives students a starting point as they embark on the journey of finding what degree they should do.

The most difficult majors ranked in this guide may be a challenge for the average student and if you consider yourself above average, picking one on the list means you are in for the challenge. As shown in the data above, economic success is almost definite for individuals taking these college majors, with professional salary rates ranging from $47,000 to $116,140.

If you do not see yourself pursuing the careers that come with these hardest college majors and are still stuck in the decision-making process, some career exploration activities and ideas may be useful.

 

References:

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  4. Data USA (n.d.). Cognitive Science. Retrieved from https://datausa.io/profile/cip/cognitive-science
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  6. Data USA (n.d.). General Applied Mathematics. Retrieved from https://datausa.io/profile/cip/general-applied-mathematics
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  15. Payscale (n.d.). Bachelor of Arts (BA), American Studies. Retrieved from https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Degree=Bachelor_of_Arts_(BA)%2C_American_Studies/Salary
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  18. Shukman, H. (2017). Researchers have worked out which majors work the hardest in college. The Tab. Retrieved from https://thetab.com/us/2017/02/06/ranked-majors-work-hardest-59673
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