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Articles / Applying to College / Is College Worth it? The Best and Worst Degrees: Part 2 of 2

Dec. 27, 2019

Is College Worth it? The Best and Worst Degrees: Part 2 of 2

Is College Worth it? The Best and Worst Degrees: Part 2 of 2

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Last time, in Part 1, I began to discuss a number of factors that might motivate aspiring collegians to consider the question: Is college worth it? For the record, I'll repeat my position on college worthiness, quoting from Part 1:

"I'm not a naysayer about higher education. I've written multiple articles over the years endorsing the value of a college degree. I'm a college graduate as are my two children. So don't think that I'm trying to put a negative spin on the value of college. I'm not, but there appears to be mounting evidence indicating that what you pursue in college can make a big difference in how you view your higher education investment and the dividends it pays."


With that, I'll finish covering the discussion points featured in Is College Worth it? Ranking the Best and Worst Degrees, by Francesca Ortegren.

In referring to the list of best/worst majors I mention in Part 1, Ortegren notes:

The cost of an undergraduate degree doesn't differ much by major but income after college does, leading to large variations in returns on investment. Many of our best majors, for instance, have relatively high ROIs.

While most of our worst majors have lower ROIs than our best majors, that's not always the case. Polymer/plastics engineering, for instance, has an ROI comparable to that of our top 5 majors.

If we only consider ROI, city/urban, community and regional planning; petroleum engineering; nuclear engineering; biopsychology; and biological and physical sciences take the cake. Each of those majors has an ROI over 269%, so students with those degrees earn at least $3.9 million more in their lifetime than someone with a high school diploma after paying for school.

On the other hand, the lowest ROIs go to social work, nutrition sciences, real estate, human services, and religion/religious studies. A religion major might only earn an extra $230,000 in their lifetime than someone who didn't go to college ...

As you can see from the graphic supporting this statement, the degrees "in the red" (lowest ROI) include Religion/Religious Studies, Human Services, Real Estate, Nutrition Sciences, and Social Work. The "blue" group of degrees (best ROI) includes Biological and Physical, Sciences, Biopsychology, Nuclear Engineering, Petroleum Engineering, and City/Urban, Community, and Regional Planning.

How about most/least job growth in the next 10 years by degree?

A major's return on investment isn't the only characteristic people should consider when deciding upon a major, though. The ability to get and keep a job in a related field after graduation could reduce financial and emotional stress in the future.

The #1 major on our list also has the most job growth projected through 2028 at 18%. Many engineering majors - which typically result in a high monetary payoff after graduation - have low projected growth.

Slow growth in some of these engineering areas (like electrical engineering) is consistent with previous projections by the BLS. And some suggest that many of the engineering jobs are experiencing slower-than-average growth in America because companies are moving to contracted labor or hiring overseas ...

Those degrees and their 10-year projected job growths are:

- Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs: -3%

- Metallurgical Engineering/Polymer/Plastics Engineering: 2%

- Petroleum Engineering/City/Urban, Community and Regional Planning: 3%

- Construction Management: 10%

- Information Science/Studies: 11%

- Human Services: 12%

- Computer Science: 14%

- Operations Research: 18%

Here are some interesting findings about "meaningfulness:"

Those who spend more on their bachelor's degree find their jobs more meaningful according to our analyses. So people who want to find more meaning in their careers might be more willing to invest more without expecting (or seeking) monetary returns.

Gerontology has a relatively low ROI - especially compared to the rest of our top 5 majors - but landed the #5 spot on our list because nearly 80% of people in jobs related to gerontology find their work very meaningful.

Jobs where employees felt lower meaningfulness included computer science; communication, journalism and related programs; and plastics engineering. While technical majors like computer science tend to pay well and offer job security and opportunities, many degree holders feel a lack of connection with their work.

More generally, majors that lead to "helping" careers tend to have the highest meaningfulness ratings: gerontology, social work, religion, and human services all made the top of the list with nearly 70% or more reporting their jobs are highly meaningful ...

The graphic displays a range of degrees and their relative levels of "meaningfulness." Those in the low-40% range include Polymer/Plastics Engineering, Information Science/Studies, Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs, Computer Science, and Real Estate. Those in the low- to high-70% range include, respectively, Religion/Religious Studies, Petroleum Engineering, Social Work, and Gerontology.

A surprising finding, at least in my view, is the diminishing returns of graduate degrees:

people with a bachelor's degree actually earn more in their lifetime on average than those with graduate degrees. Therefore, even though graduate degrees are more profitable than a high school diploma, spending an additional 2-8 years in college doesn't usually pay off financially.

As an example, a computer science student who earns a bachelor's degree has an ROI of about 154% over their life. That student might spend about 4 years in college, and would earn a median salary of $86,000 over the course of their career. A computer science student who pursues a PhD, however, might not be so lucky.

A PhD in computer science takes an additional 5-7 years to complete beyond a bachelor's degree, which can cost an additional $176,000 in tuition and loans. That student's salary would be similar to the student who earned a bachelor's degree in computer science, but the ROI equates to about 103% because the PhD is in more debt and will likely spend fewer years earning money unless they push off retirement ...

A comment about lifetime earnings by degree type:

... professional degrees (like law or medicine) have higher ROIs than most doctoral degrees. Our analysis of various professional degrees showed that the largest ROI is attributed to medical degrees, with doctors earning 400% more over their lifetime than the typical high school graduate (despite the high cost of medical school) ...

And let's not forget about student loan and interest by degree type:

we were conservative in considering a 10-year repayment on those loans, but the typical borrower spends over 20 years repaying their student loans. In that case, interest would be much higher than we have depicted here for the average student.

In conjunction with borrowing more, higher interest rates are applied to loans borrowed for graduate school and interest starts accruing when the loan is borrowed instead of after graduation. That means graduate students are earning more interest even at the same loan amount and they're building up that interest for longer, driving those costs up even more ...

Finally, how does this report answer, in part, the Big Question: Is college worth it?

As mentioned, all college degrees lead to higher earnings than a high school diploma and many find their careers to be meaningful. Long-term job satisfaction and security could be considered priceless when it comes to a career

So the answer to the question of whether college degrees are worth it is "sometimes." Most bachelor's degrees and some graduate degrees seem to pay off in the long run. When you consider that many people who obtain doctorates aren't looking for a monetary payoff, but a means to an end to get the job they really want or to land an academic job, it becomes clear that returns are about more than money

There appears to be no cut-and-dried formula for answering the Big Question. However, you can certainly define your goals as you plan your college process. Are you motivated chiefly by money, a return on your investment, or can you think broadly enough to consider the rewards of satisfaction and meaningfulness? This detailed report should be able to start you considering what your true higher education motives are.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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