The Most Lucrative Majors for College Students in 2024

by Jalen & Sarah Bromley

Every college campus contains some light-hearted rivalry between different college majors. STEM subjects tend to get the stamp of approval, while arts subjects are the butt of the joke. But there’s more to picking a lucrative major than just picking whatever is at the top of the “highest-paying college majors” list currently.

In this article, we’ll cover how your major affects your earning potential, what to consider when you’re comparing subjects, and the top-paying majors currently. Prepare to be the highest earner in your cohort!

Why a major can affect your financial future

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re already aware that picking the right major can impact on your future finances. So let’s break down the mechanisms  at play here.

Return on investment 

When a business owner is weighing up whether to spend their budget on a marketing campaign, they must consider its return on investment. In other words, will it bring in more revenue than it costs?

Thinking of your college degree as an investment in yourself is a crucial mindset shift if you want to maximize your earning potential when you graduate. To calculate this, work out your future earnings (you can use average earnings for a major multiplied by 30 or 40 to represent your entire career) and subtract the cost of attending college. 

Then, you can compare the return on investment for different majors — or compare the return on investment for attending versus not attending college.

For now, going to college still makes financial sense for the average person. On average, college graduates earn $2.8 million in their lifetime, whereas those with only a high school diploma earn lifetime earnings of just $1.6 million.

This proves that going to college affects your financial future. However, the size of the college wage premium can vary widely depending on the major and college you opt for, which is why it’s essential to make the right choice.


It’s no secret that the US has a student loans problem. Americans currently owe more than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, and that number increases every day. 

We’ve already seen that the cost of attending college is a key component when working out the return on investment in a college degree. So, it’s not just your future earning potential you need to consider  — it’s also the amount you’re borrowing to secure that salary.

It’s not necessarily wise to choose a job based solely on the average earnings of its graduates. For example, the average medical school graduate racks up $215,000 in debt, which is significantly higher than the average across all college majors. 

That’s not to say that you should let the debt scare you away — in the example above, medical students also earn significantly more than the average college graduate. 

But don’t forget that the major you choose directly impacts the debt you’ll take on, not to mention academic rigor, so you need to carefully weigh it against earning potential.

One thing to consider is how soon after graduating you expect to pay off your college debt (based on the expected earnings of your major). If your salary won’t be high enough to pay off your debt within the first few years, it may be time to re-think your choice of major.

How to choose the most lucrative major

We could just list out the majors that offer the highest earning potential on average — and in fact, we’ll do that later in this article. 

But it’s more important that you know how to compare different majors and account for your own unique situation — as you’ll soon see, everything from recessions to your personality can have an impact.

We’ll run through the following factors:

  • Market trends
  • Resilience during downturns
  • Your interests
  • Costs
  • Career path
  • Work experience
  • College choice

Market trends 

The majors that resulted in the best earning potential fifty years ago and the top majors today aren’t necessarily the same.

Some areas, like law, have always been lucrative. But something like tech has only become a significant driver of economic performance in the last couple of decades, resulting in computer science majors offering great prospects.

If you want to secure your financial future, you need to look at the bigger picture of what’s happening in the economy. Which industries are experiencing the strongest growth? What are we likely to need more of in the future? Areas like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence are often touted as big growth areas.

For further inspiration, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) compiles a list of the fastest -growing occupations in the country. These are currently the top professions on the list, along with the median pay as of 2022:

  1. Wind turbine service technicians ($57,320 per year)
  2. Nurse practitioners ($121,610 per year)
  3. Data scientists ($103,500 per year)
  4. Statisticians ($98,920 per year)
  5. Information security analysts ($112,000 per year)
  6. Medical and health services managers ($104,830 per year)
  7. Epidemiologists ($78,520 per year)
  8. Physician assistants ($126,010 per year)
  9. Physical therapist assistants ($62,770 per year)
  10. Software developers ($127,260 per year)

Some of these entries will come as little surprise, such as software developers and data scientists. But other professions tend to go under the radar, such as information security analysts.

If you want to pick a strong major, research what’s happening in the world and which sectors are benefitting.

Resilience during downturns

Leading on from the above, some majors and careers are more resilient to economic downturns than others. Considering there’s been a recession of some kind just over every three years since 1857, this isn’t something you’ll want to ignore.

Engineering, education, healthcare, and accounting are four areas that generally aren’t affected by recessions. No matter what the economy is doing, we need to look after sick people, teach children, do taxes, and build and maintain the structures society relies on.

Other fields can look lucrative during a boom, but are the first to lay people off once the going gets tough and the investor money dries out. Even though tech is widely seen as a high-paying area, the tech layoffs of 2023 have been no joke, with even major companies like Google being affected — stability is an important part of securing a good financial future for most people, so this is something to consider.

Your interests

If you followed the advice about working out the return on investment of different majors and stopped there, you might decide that the best thing you can do for your financial future is to choose a profession and major that looks good on paper.

But we don’t live in a pen-and-paper world. Just because a major has a good return on investment, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to choose it. If you study an engineering degree because of its financial promise but detest the subject, chances are that you won’t make it out of that degree and into a job in the field anyway. It simply wouldn’t be the right fit.

Or, you might struggle so much with the work that you spend all your time studying instead of preparing for your future.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your earning potential is to play to your natural strengths and interests. If a certain major interests you so much that you feel motivated to get the best grades and find work experience in the field, it might result in the best earning potential for you personally. Everyone is different!

Plus, we’re more likely to excel in a career if it plays to our strengths, which means higher earnings.

What subjects did you enjoy the most at school? What kind of job can you imagine yourself enjoying? What comes naturally to you? The answers to these kinds of questions should be part of your analysis. 


As we’ve seen, the cost of obtaining a college degree impacts the return on investment you can expect.

Often, the majors with the highest earning potential overall involve the most years at college. Some careers also require grad school, which is pricey.

But it’s not just college fees you need to consider — think about financial aid too. If a certain college or program offers better scholarship or bursary opportunities, it could swing things in your favor when it comes to financial returns. 

Often, there’s more financial aid available for programs like STEM, healthcare, and education.

Career paths

It’s obvious why the career paths a major leads to is relevant for earning potential. Your career determines your earnings, and your major often impacts your career. But there are also a few not-so-obvious things to note here.

Firstly, don’t forget that a “career path” refers to the long term. Even if a career doesn’t have the best-starting salary, it could offer better wage growth and higher lifetime earnings. Don’t just look at the average earnings of a major in the first 1-2 years after graduation — also look at earnings ten years down the line.

Also, while there are some careers you need a certain degree to secure, there are also many jobs you can get with any major. Some examples include:

  • Project management
  • Human resources
  • Investment banking
  • Management consultancy 
  • Sales
  • Supply chain and logistics

If you think that one of these careers is a good fit for you and you have the potential to succeed in it, the subject you choose may not be particularly relevant for you. Instead, it might be better to focus on choosing a major with less debt, getting as much work experience as possible, and improving your soft skills to secure a solid career. Building soft skills are especially important for those looking to enter the financial field as well.

Work experience

The opportunities a major offers — financial or otherwise — don’t start and end with academia. Sometimes, it’s your work experience that ultimately helps you to get a job. Some majors and colleges provide more support with this than others.

A big part of this comes down to the college you choose. For instance, does a college offer appointments with a career advisor, industry partnerships, or work-study opportunities? Sometimes, a college has opportunities or services that are only for certain majors, so this is something to look at.

College choice 

Even though the focus of this article is on majors, the college you attend can also impact how lucrative your major is. 

For one, the college you choose impacts a degree’s cost, which we’ve seen is another crucial factor. Going to a college in your state is generally more cost-effective than going to one out of state, and public schools are more affordable than private schools.

Other factors that affect how expensive a college is include its reputation and its NCAA conference and NCAA division. Prestigious schools such as those in the Ivy League, PAC 12, and Big 10 are more expensive to attend — but they also often lead to higher salaries.

One of the reasons for this may be networking. As they say, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know — so a major that gets you in with the right group could actually be the one that gets you the best salary.

Don’t forget to consider this when comparing majors.

Resources to help you find the right major

The U.S. Department of Education created a “College Scorecard” to help you compare some of the factors we’ve mentioned here, including the typical earnings of different subjects and standard student loan repayments for various programs. This is a great tool for weighing up different majors.

Most of the advice we’ve given so far has focused on the research you can carry out yourself. But it’s always a smart choice to seek out advice from others. Speaking to an academic advisor can be helpful, as can reaching out to any family members or friends who studied the major you’re considering. Are they happy with their choice? Maybe they know someone who studied something different and was very financially successful?

Top majors with financial potential

Even though the right major for one person might not be the most profitable choice for another, let’s face it  — we all know that you want to know which majors give the highest earnings.

According to Payscale, the ten highest-paying majors are as follows:

  1. Petroleum engineering
  2. Operations research and industrial engineering
  3. Interaction design
  4. Applied economics + management 
  5. Building science
  6. Actuarial mathematics
  7. Operations research 
  8. Systems engineering
  9. Optical science and engineering
  10. Information + computer science 

As you’ll notice, these are extremely specific fields — specialization is often a great path to getting paid more, as you will be one of the few people in the world with a certain skill. Low supply drives up demand.

Majors in STEM, finance, and healthcare also tend to be lucrative, even though they didn’t all make the list above.

What about humanities and social sciences?

Although they’re not known for being high-paying, you shouldn’t necessarily rule out humanities and social sciences. They might not always directly lead to a high-paying career, but they can — you can increase your chances further by attending grad school. 

For instance, humanities graduates are often successful in MBAs since the communication skills and broad knowledge base they pick up helps them to apply different perspectives.

Not to mention that you can pursue high-paying careers like law and finance with any degree.

It’s also worth giving an honorable mention to entrepreneurship. You don’t need a fancy college major to start a multimillion business empire — in fact, many founders and CEOs come from a humanities background. For example, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki studied History and Literature, and Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma studied English. 

If you think this could be a route you’re interested in, you may want to look at the entrepreneurship support different colleges offer.

A word of caution

Before we close, it’s important to remember that there’s no way to predict the future outcomes of different majors with certainty. Sure, you can look at the average earnings for a college major and can assess the probability of certain outcomes — but there’s never a guarantee.

One day, starting a career as an artificial intelligence programmer might seem like a failsafe financial plan. But you never know — tomorrow, the government could introduce new regulation that stifles the field, resulting in there being almost no jobs available. There’s also uncertainty in your own personal life — you might fail to get a role for the career you thought you wanted, but have a chance meeting with someone who offers you a job in a totally new field.

In other words: Make your plans based on the best information available, but always expect the unexpected.

The choice is yours

On a surface level, the best way to find the most lucrative major is simply to assess the average earning potential and lifetime returns on investment for different majors. Yet when you look at the full picture, the reality is more complex — you need to consider where your skills and interests will be the most likely to see success, as well as additional factors like market trends and the college you opt for.

Once you’ve chosen the right major, it’s just the beginning of your path to financial success. At Frugal Student, we’re here to help you navigate the rest. Our mailing list sends out regular advice to college students who want to be smart with their money, so don’t forget to sign up.

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