With such an emphasis on getting a college education, it’s little wonder that getting at least a bachelor’s degree is taken for granted these days. Sure, you could study insect biology or flute performance, but most students will end up choosing majors that fall into common categories. We hate to break it to you: You are not a unique snowflake in a sea of otherwise similar students. Earning that college degree is still an accomplishment, but the competition can be fierce if you’re entering an already-saturated job field.
According to one Georgetown University study, it does pay to do your research. Following your passion to study philosophy is your prerogative, but the university’s analysis found there can be a huge disparity in pay between college majors. College graduates with the highest-paying majors, many of which are in the engineering and pharmaceutical fields, earn an average of $3.4 million more over their lifetimes than college graduates with some of the lowest-paying degrees, some of which include human services and education roles.
The researchers at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau for a bulk of the report, which provides details on 137 undergraduate and graduate degrees. Interestingly, some of the most popular degrees are not the ones that make the most money. According to Georgetown’s rankings, the top 10 undergraduate degrees don’t include any of the top-paid positions available.
However, that’s not to say the most popular degrees always lead to a life of destitution or scraping by. You won’t win “most unique” in the college degree category, but some of these positions are so popular because there’s also a high demand. Many of the most common majors are still well paid — they just might be more competitive to get. Here are the 10 most ubiquitous college degrees.
10. English language and literature
Only about 20% of college degrees are majors that are not career-focused, according to the Georgetown study. However, English language and literature falls into that category, since it doesn’t correlate directly with a chosen career. This degree ranks as the tenth most popular undergraduate degree, and jumps to No. 6 in popularity when it comes to graduate degrees.
English lit majors aren’t expected to jump to the top of the earnings pool after graduation: The median salary with a bachelor’s degree is around $53,000. However, that’s more than some of the majors on this list, and can grow even more depending on the chosen career path. “… A college major isn’t destiny,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, the center director and the report’s lead author. “For example, the top 25 percent of humanities and liberal arts majors earn more than the bottom 25 percent of engineering majors.”
As a baseline, there are roughly 251 English language and literature degree-holders for every 10,000 bachelor’s degree college graduates, the Georgetown study reports.
9. Elementary education
Teaching elementary-aged children is often described as a “calling,” which makes sense considering the compensation isn’t all that much for teaching future generations how to read and write. The median salary for elementary educators is $43,000, and ranks No. 130 out of 137. Among the top 10 most popular college degrees for undergrads, this one pays the least. (Early childhood education, with a median salary of $39,000, is the lowest-paying degree in the study.)
8. General education
Teaching to all age groups is slightly less popular than educating the youngsters, but it doesn’t yield a huge salary boost. The median salary for someone with a general education degree is $46,000, the second-lowest salary among the most popular undergraduate majors. Despite being some of the most popular majors, however, there is still a high demand for teachers in just about every state.
The U.S. Department of Education identifies Teacher Shortage Areas each year in terms of geography and discipline (such as mathematics or biology). One plus side is that despite the low earnings, teachers fulfilling needs in these shortage areas could be eligible for loan deferment or grant programs.
7. Marketing and marketing research
A large number of college students would like to come up with Coca-Cola’s new jingle or slogan, it seems. For every 10,000 college graduates there are 315 degree-holders hoping to make it in marketing. For the most part, those graduates earn a decent living once they find a job. The median earnings for employees in marketing with a bachelor’s degree is $63,000, according to Georgetown’s findings.
6. Communications and mass media
“Communications” is a broad term, but evidently it’s a popular choice among college students, since it is the sixth-most popular undergraduate degree. Perhaps the overflow of communications and media professionals is part of why earnings are generally low: The median salary is $54,000, which ranks No. 77 out of 137 degrees for undergraduates.
You’ll have plenty of classmates at college if you’re planning to get your degree in psychology, but it will probably be best to have a specific career track in mind ahead of time. Out of 10,000 college degree-holders, about 404 undergrads have studied the subject. It’s also the most popular graduate degree out there, despite uncertain salary projections. The median pay for a bachelor’s degree in psychology is $49,000, while a graduate degree bumps you up to a median of $65,000.
Your best bet might be to work toward a career in psychiatry, with an average salary of $193,680, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, that will require much more education that the initial psych degree.
Nursing degrees are incredibly common, but that might have more to do with high demand than anything else. According to the BLS, nursing jobs are expected to increase by 16% between now and 2024, much faster than the national average job growth. The median salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree in nursing is $66,000, the second-highest wages on this list.
Most people with a bachelor’s degree in accounting will pursue a Certified Public Accountant certification, which leads them to the highest median salary among the most popular college degrees. Accountants make a median salary of $69,000, which ranks No. 38 among undergraduate degrees in Georgetown’s study. For every 10,000 college degree-holders, 463 of them studied accounting.
2. General business
A “business” degree can lead to several different types of career paths, and is evidently a popular choice for many college students. About 539 people for every 10,000 degree holders receive a general business degree, making it the second-most popular course of undergraduate study. The median pay of $65,000 per year ranks at No. 49, putting it just under the top third of salaries.
1. Business management and administration
By now you should have noticed that business-related degrees cover four of the 10 most popular college majors, three of which account for the most popular studies overall. A degree in business management and administration is pursued by 31.2% of all business majors, by far the most popular business-related concentration. There are about 814 business administration majors for every 10,000 college graduates, according to Georgetown’s report.
Pursuing this major in graduate school, particularly for receiving an MBA, is also popular. The median pay does increase ($62,000 to $81,000), but many people also caution that simply receiving the degree doesn’t immediately mean a new job placement or corner office. Because the degree is so popular, expect steep competition in the waiting job search.