The impact of earning potential on students’ choice of major or bachelor’s degree has been studied extensively. For instance, a recent survey from education resource Intelligent.com indicates that over 40% of students choose a field of study according to its earning potential (Oliveros, 2021). According to Oliveros, students whose previously chosen areas of study were impacted by the pandemic had a higher tendency to pick more lucrative majors for their future careers.
To help students get on the right path to a more financially stable career, this article lists down the highest paying bachelor’s degrees as of 2021. Unsurprisingly, the list is dominated by bachelor’s degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), as these degrees tend to have a better payoff compared to others (Day & Martinez, 2021).
To rank bachelor’s degrees, this article takes into account early-career median salary and projected job growth. Salary information is taken from 2021 data from Payscale.com, while information on projected employment growth is based on published data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With the highly variable nature of salaries and job prospects, this list should be taken as a rough ranking of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees today.
As long as corporations make money off oil reserves around the world, petroleum engineering will remain among the highest paying bachelor’s degrees. In pursuing a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering, students learn how to develop efficient equipment and methods for extracting oil and gas from reserves deep below the Earth’s surface. Petroleum engineers also implement drilling strategies and supervise operations at drill sites.
Despite being some of the best-paid engineers in the world, petroleum engineers are few and far between. According to DATA USA, only 2,269 petroleum engineering degrees were awarded in 2019.
With a bachelor’s degree in operations research, students are equipped with the quantitative skills to solve decision problems involving the proper allocation and management of limited resources (Columbia University in the City of New York, n.d.) To develop students’ skills in quantitative analysis, coursework for this bachelor’s degree is heavily focused on mathematics. Operations research students often take foundational and advanced courses in statistics, probability, mathematical modeling, and calculus.
If you’re interested in learning about ship design and maintenance, a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering may be a good fit for you. While pursuing this degree, students learn about the core scientific concepts behind the operation of different types of ships, including cargo ships, aircraft carriers, and submarines. Courses commonly offered by this bachelor’s degree include marine design, fluid sciences, propulsion, and applied mechanics.
A bachelor’s degree in computer engineering offers a different course of study from a computer science degree. A computer engineering degree usually puts a heavier focus on the design and development of hardware, software, and networks. The degree also provides students with lab-based courses for building and testing embedded systems that integrate hardware and software.
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics
Unlike highly specialized engineering fields such as petroleum engineering, systems engineering usually has a broader scope. This multidisciplinary engineering degree teaches students to build and manage organizational systems using mathematical and engineering techniques. That’s not to say that these degrees don’t have an academic focus; a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering typically involves coursework in probability, modeling, and decision analysis.
Despite its name, chemical engineering is a broad field. While pursuing this chemistry degree, students learn about the production of goods and materials and using physics, math, biology, and chemistry to solve problems in the manufacturing process. In most cases, students can also pursue advanced studies in areas such as thermodynamics, energy sustainability, and materials and polymers.
Chemical engineering graduates can choose to work in research and development, education, and consulting.
A bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering is another popular STEM option for students today. During their course of study, electrical engineering students learn how to design and test electrical products and equipment, including systems for radar, communications, and navigation.
Students pursuing an electrical engineering degree often have the option to specialize in a variety of related fields. At the University of Maryland, for instance, students can choose from six specialization areas: controls, computer engineering, electrophysics, power systems, microelectronics, and communications and signals processing (University of Maryland, n.d.)
With technology dominating future of jobs, it’s no surprise that computer science graduates remain in high demand today. A bachelor’s degree in computer science provides students with comprehensive knowledge and practical skills in fields of study such as computer systems and networks, programming languages, and software development. Most universities also offer advanced courses on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science.
With sufficient knowledge in these areas, students are ready to start a computer science career immediately after graduation. As businesses increasingly rely on technology for their day-to-day operations, there won’t be a shortage of jobs for computer science graduates anytime soon.
As more businesses welcome digital transformation, the demand for qualified software engineers and software developers grows. A bachelor’s degree in software engineering trains students in competencies such as application development, programming, and database management. In most universities, this bachelor’s degree also builds on core mathematical concepts, including discrete mathematics and calculus.
According to Pham (2021), a scarcity of qualified engineering talent has resulted in a shortage of software engineers in the country. As a result, 40% of organizations plan to increase their budgets for software outsourcing.
Source: 2021 State of Software Engineers
With a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, students learn how to design and maintain aircraft systems, spacecraft, and satellites. Aside from basic courses in physics and mathematics, students also take courses in advanced engineering disciplines such as structural systems, aerodynamics, and propulsion. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, aerospace engineers can further specialize in aeronautical engineering (aircraft) and astronautical engineering (spacecraft).
Qualified aerospace engineers can work in the government for national defense and at private firms involved in manufacturing and research and development.
With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, students learn how to design and build a wide range of mechanical devices, from generators and internal combustion engines to conveyor systems and elevators. Mechanical engineering students enroll in courses such as materials science, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics. Students also have the option to specialize in fields like robotics, machine learning, and auto research.
Source: VDMA; UNIDO; Eurostat
A bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering teaches students how to apply engineering concepts to the design of devices that can improve the quality of human life. As such, biomedical engineering students typically take classroom and lab-based courses where they learn to design medical devices such as artificial organs and diagnostic tools. At some universities, students can also pursue more specialized studies in fields such as biomechanics and biomedical imaging.
Similar to a systems engineering degree, a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering teaches students how to analyze different production systems to reduce wastefulness and improve efficiency. The curricula of these degrees typically integrate the basic concepts of work design and engineering with modern fields of study such as supply chain management and data science.
Industrial engineers can apply their skills to a wide variety of industries, including manufacturing and research and development. Compared to other engineering fields, the occupation is expected to grow more quickly in terms of employment.
Unlike high paying bachelor’s degrees that focus on one field of study, a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science involves interdisciplinary studies. Cognitive science students seek to better understand the human mind, exploring the concepts of intelligence and human cognition. These bachelor’s degrees usually offer courses in linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience.
Given the eclectic nature of cognitive science, bachelor’s degrees in the field usually offer concentrations in fields such as neuroscience, language, and artificial intelligence.
A bachelor’s degree in pharmacy or pharmaceutical sciences is essential to becoming a pharmacy technician or a licensed pharmacist. The curriculum for this bachelor’s degree typically includes courses in basic sciences, including chemistry, biology, and mathematics. Students also complete coursework in advanced courses such as pharmacology, toxicology, and drug discovery and development.
A bachelor’s degree in interaction design may be the ideal choice for students who want to simultaneously hone their creativity and technical skills. With this degree, students create the most intuitive and most appealing design for electronic interfaces, including those found on websites, apps, and smart devices (Columbia College Chicago, n.d.). As such, students take extensive coursework in fields such as programming, human-computer interaction, and user experience design (UX).
As the global economy grows and evolves, organizations will continue to need economists to study market trends and create business forecasts. In an article titled “Economists (and economics) in tech companies” published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2019, Athey and Luca observed that economists are starting to play bigger roles in tech firms like Microsoft, Uber, and Amazon.
According to Athey and Luca (2019), “Amazon assigns economists to specific business problems across divisions, ranging from the e-commerce platform to digital content to the experimentation platform used to evaluate changes and innovations. Uber has teams of economists focused on understanding policy issues in addition to pricing and incentive design.”
The curriculum for a bachelor’s degree in economics typically involves core courses in concepts such as economic theory, microeconomics, and macroeconomics. And since economics is such a broad field, this bachelor’s degree may offer specializations in areas like agricultural economics, financial economics, and mathematical economics.
If you want to work as a certified actuary, you need a bachelor’s degree in actuarial science. This bachelor’s degree equips students with the analytical skills needed to properly assess the costs of potential future events, like disability or death. To be able to quantify these risks, students pursuing this degree take courses in fields such as math, statistics, business, and economics.
Due to the nature of their expertise, actuaries usually work for insurance companies. In the future, companies may also need actuaries to help with enterprise risk management.
A bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering offers specialized studies in the design, development, and inspection of electronic equipment such as communications systems, flight systems, satellites, and radar systems. Though curricula for these degrees vary from one university or college to another, required courses usually tackle topics such as transistor design, electrical circuits, and advanced microcontroller design.
Despite their similarities, a bachelor’s degree in statistics is distinct from a general bachelor’s degree in mathematics. A statistics degree focuses on the core concepts of statistics as a science while allowing students to explore the applications of statistics in a wide range of disciplines. Statistics students also complete coursework in areas of study such as data analysis and probability.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects fast employment growth for statisticians, especially as statistical analysis continues to be crucial in making sound business and policy decisions (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020).
A bachelor’s degree in physics equips students with in-depth knowledge on the properties of matter and energy as well as how these elements affect the universe. Physics students typically undertake coursework in diverse scientific fields, including quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, and thermodynamics. Many Physics graduates go into applied research after completing their studies, developing technology for use in energy storage and navigation, among other applications.
A bachelor of mathematics degree can either be a bachelor of arts (BA) or a bachelor of science (BS) degree. One of the main differences between these two degrees is that a BA in mathematics tends to have a more flexible curriculum, allowing students to choose from a wider range of electives. Meanwhile, a BS in mathematics is more focused on core mathematical disciplines like linear algebra and calculus, along with courses on computer science and logic.
The demand for qualified mathematics professionals is expected to increase over the next decade, spurred by businesses and government agencies that need mathematicians to analyze big data (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021).
In pursuing a bachelor’s degree in management information systems, students learn how to use their knowledge in computers and information technology in solving organizational problems. As such, coursework for the degree typically combines technical fields such as programming and business concepts such as marketing and business finance. In many cases, students pursuing this degree are also required to take courses in economics and cybersecurity.
Since society always needs healthcare workers to care for an aging population, nursing is one of the highest paying majors today. A bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) prepares students for careers as registered nurses (RNs) with higher compensation and managerial duties, compared to RNs with an associate’s degree in nursing (Nurse.org, n.d.).
Having a BSN is also the first step to pursuing advanced studies in nursing, such as a Nurse Practitioner degree or a Clinical Nurse Specialist degree.
A bachelor’s degree in civil engineering teaches students how to solve problems in national infrastructure and urban development. Students also learn how to repair and create infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and waterways. As such, common courses in civil engineering bachelor’s degrees include fluid mechanics, hydraulic engineering, and surveying.
Civil engineering students also have the option to pursue concentrations that include construction engineering and transportation systems.
One of the highest paying majors today, a bachelor’s degree in finance can prove to be an asset to students. Coursework for the degree typically includes courses in statistics, business law, taxation, and accounting. Similar to economics degrees, finance degrees may offer concentrations such as financial planning, corporate finance, and asset management.
Once students earn their bachelor’s degree in finance, they are qualified to work as financial analysts, controllers, and financial managers.
Unlike a bachelor’s degree in computer science, a bachelor’s degree in information technology is more focused on using computer programs and networks to achieve business goals (Slyter, 2019). As such, this degree usually offers courses such as IT management and information security, which prepare students for finding technology-based solutions to different organizational needs.
After graduation, students with IT degrees may find work as database administrators, computer network architects, and system administrators.
Sources: Forbes; Burning Glass
A bachelor’s degree in accounting teaches students core concepts in accounting and financial transaction management, such as auditing, cost accounting, and accounting information systems. In many universities, students pursuing these degrees can also choose from specializations such as public accounting, financial analysis, and forensic accounting.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the analytical functions of accountants will become even more important as routine tasks are automated by technology.
A bachelor’s degree in business administration includes classes in core business concepts such as human resources, marketing, logistics, and finance. Students pursuing these degrees may also take courses in leadership and organizational behavior. Students can also choose to specialize in areas such as entrepreneurship, international business, and nonprofit management.
A bachelor’s degree in aviation management prepares students for the knowledge and skills needed for careers in airport management and airline operations. Students pursuing this degree enroll in courses such as airport safety, aviation law, crisis communications, and disaster management. Many of these bachelor’s degrees also offer flight training to students who plan to become certified as pilots.
As it slowly recovers from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global airline industry is expected to significantly cut losses this year (Josephs, 2021). According to Bouwer et al. (2021), leisure travel is likely to drive this recovery period.
Students typically take a lot of factors into consideration when choosing a bachelor’s degree. While there is nothing wrong with choosing a bachelor’s degree that aligns with your interests and passion, it may also be worthwhile to consider bachelor’s degrees that are more financially practical.
With trends pointing to the rising costs of college, it would not hurt to choose a bachelor’s degree that will free you from the burden of student loans sooner and help you establish financial stability.