College Majors With the Best Return on Investment

Get the most from your tuition dollars by researching job prospects and salary potential of your major.

Engineering majors consistently earn top dollar, but students in other fields can also see a strong return on their college investment.

Engineering majors earn top dollar, but students in other fields can also see a strong return on their college investment.

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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

Long-term earning

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."

Here's what starting and mid-career salaries look like for these majors, according to salary data from PayScale:

• Physics—median starting pay: $49,800; median mid-career pay: $101,000

• Economics—median starting pay: $47,300; median mid-career pay: $94,700

• Statistics—median starting pay: $49,000; median mid-career pay: $93,800

Value-added skills

Majoring in a STEM subject—science, technology, engineering, and math—is not for everyone. Students working toward degrees in the humanities and social sciences can still get a strong return on their investments.

"Whether it be sociology, or political science, or anthropology ... anything that helps you understand people's behaviors and trends in behaviors, I think those would be good majors for people who aren't as analytically focused," Bardaro says.

While the salaries for these majors are lower than those for economics or engineering degrees, students can still earn strong salaries and have the versatility to work across multiple industries. Here's what starting and median salaries look like for students graduating with certain bachelor's degrees in the social sciences:

• Government—median starting pay: $41,400; median mid-career pay: $87,300

• Political science—median starting pay: $39,900; median mid-career pay: $80,100

• International relations—median starting pay: $40,500; median mid-career pay: $79,400

• Advertising—median starting pay: $37,700; median mid-career pay: $74,700

Students with the elusive combination of communications and technical skills are also in high demand, Porter, with CEW, says.

[Learn which careers to watch in 2012.]

"Research what skills are most valuable in the labor market … and depending on those 'hot skills' you can also obtain a certificate that will provide you skills that will set you apart," Porter adds.

Relevant certifications, concentration areas, and minors can all add value to your degree. Choosing schools wisely can also help students get the best return on their investments, says PayScale's Bardaro.

"If you're in one of the STEM majors ... you can justify going to a more expensive school because they pay better and there's more job opportunities," she says, noting that attending a top-tier school such as Stanford University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can add more value to certain degrees. "If you have more interest in art or humanities ... then you should probably think about going to a cheaper school."

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