Those skills include the ability to analyze and make sense of data, work through economic models, or understand what drives people to buy. Factoring in workforce demand, employment potential, starting salaries, and income growth can help college students ensure they get the best return on their investment.
An analytical edge
Engineering, physics, computer science, and mathematics boast strong earning potential and low unemployment rates, which can help you reap the highest return on your education investment, says Katie Bardaro, a lead economist at PayScale, an online salary database.
"Not everyone is cut out for the analytical stuff. If you are one of those people, you're lucky, because people want to hire you," Bardaro says.
With average starting salaries hovering close to $98,000 per year, a median salary of $120,000, and 95 percent of graduates employed full time, petroleum engineering majors can expect a solid return on their degree, according to PayScale salary data and a report by the CEW. The same goes for students majoring in geological engineering, a niche degree that yields high salaries and nearly 100 percent employment for majors, the CEW report says.
Engineering majors dominate most top 10 lists for degrees with a high return on investment. Here's how other engineering degrees stack up in order of median mid-career pay, according to earnings data from PayScale:
• Chemical engineering—median starting pay: $64,500; median mid-career pay: $109,000
• Electrical engineering—median starting pay: $61,300; median mid-career pay: $103,000
• Materials science and engineering—median starting pay: $60,400; median mid-career pay: $103,000
• Aerospace engineering—median starting pay: $60,700; median mid-career pay: $102,000
• Computer engineering—median starting pay: $61,800; median mid-career pay: $101,000
Parents urging their students to change majors for a higher payout anticipate their child will earn more than $70,000 per year after graduation, but the average starting salary for college graduates in 2012 was less than $44,500, according to the Fidelity survey.
But students and parents should consider the lifetime earning potential of a given major when trying to determine its return on investment.
"[In] nursing, you get paid really well in the beginning, but then you just don't grow much in your career," says PayScale's Bardaro.
Graduates with degrees in physics, economics, or statistics often enter the workforce with lower initial salaries, but the potential for income growth and the flexible skillset makes these degrees solid investments, Bardaro says.
Physics lands among the top 10 majors for median pay and for growth between mid- and long-term career salaries. The same is true for economics majors, she points out.
"A lot of people talk about majoring in business ... actually, economics is even better, because you learn a lot more quantitative analysis, a lot more statistics, and things that are applicable in kind of this big data world," she says. "Similar to physics, it's really good for salary growth overall."