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.

By + More

It's no secret: College is expensive.

Nationally, student loan debt stands at $914 billion, up $10 billion from just three months prior, according to the latest quarterly report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Despite the gloom and doom over the rising cost of college, it still pays to get a degree if you do it wisely. Full-time workers with a bachelor's degree earn, on average, 84 percent more over their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma, according to a May 2011 report by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

[See the 2013 Best Colleges rankings.]

But college is an investment, and not all investments are created equal. What you study impacts the economic value your degree will hold after graduation, which is why some parents urge their students to study business instead of poetry.

In fact, 42 percent of parents say they prodded their student to pick a collegiate path based on earning potential, and 16 percent of parents say they will have their child change majors to earn more money, according to Fidelity Investments, which surveyed nearly 2,400 families for its August 2012 report.

Which majors are parents pushing their kids to pursue? Computer science, nursing, engineering, psychology, biology, and accounting, the Fidelity report states.

While engineering and computer science consistently rate among the top-paying college majors, students should also research employment demand and hot skillsets, says Andrea Porter, communications director at Georgetown's CEW.

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.

[View a slideshow featuring nine hot college majors.]

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