Pick a College Major That Pays Off

Consider many factors, including post-graduation financial prospects, before choosing a field of study.

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Selecting a major is one of the biggest decisions of your college career. Not only will your major dictate a lot of your academic path, but it becomes a huge part of your college life. Your chosen field of study helps determine the people you work and hang out with, the projects you do in your spare time, and even the parts of campus you know well. (I'm pretty sure I can still use the University of Minnesota's underground tunnel system to get to Murphy Hall from anywhere in the known universe.)

With a decision of that magnitude, there are plenty of factors to take into consideration before you declare. Obviously, you'll want to major in a field that you care about, that you're interested in a career in, and that you have the right skill set for. You'll want to talk to folks at your desired colleges and find out about their strongest programs. And, of course, you'll want to look into the financial side of things—which majors have strong financial aid opportunities, and which will pay off in the long run as you embark on a career.

[Check out scholarships for in-demand majors.]

When it comes to the latter half of that equation, it's worth checking out the College Board's frequently updated list of "The Ten Hottest Careers" for various degree levels. The current listing analyzes likely job openings through 2018, and provides some good guidance. For two-year or vocational degrees, nursing positions are far and away the most likely to be looking for employees over the next decade; when it comes to four-year degrees, virtually the whole top 10 list comes from education, information technology, or accounting, with elementary school teachers at the top. Not only are these fields likely to be hiring when you finish college, you can also find plenty of assistance if you're majoring in them—starting at the government level.

The U.S. Department of Education sponsors the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant Program, which provides up to $4,000 per year for eligible education majors who agree to spend at least four academic years after college teaching in "high-need" fields for schools in low-income districts.

On a state level, Illinois is just one of a number of states that provide scholarships for future teachers. Its Illinois Future Teacher Corps Program provides scholarships of $5,000 to $10,000 to students in qualifying education majors at state schools. Similar programs exist in Washington, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, and it's always worth checking with your state's education department, since funding changes regularly.

[In photos: nine hot college majors.]

There's also plenty of aid available for science, math, and technology (STEM) majors, again starting at the federal level. If you're a Pell grant-eligible student pursuing any of a number of STEM majors, the National SMART Grant could be a great opportunity. Upperclassmen maintaining at least a 3.0 GPA in qualified majors can receive $4,000 per year for their third and fourth years (or fifth year of a five-year program), with no further obligations.

In addition, the STEM fields also feature a wealth of private and institutional scholarships, including some very big-time paydays for high school students preparing for college. The Intel Science Talent Search, one of the best-known programs in the nation, features a $1.25 million award pool and a $100,000 top prize. The prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology offers individual and team top prizes of $100,000 each, and the Siemens Foundation as a whole invests more than $7 million in STEM education annually. The BUICK Achievers Scholarship Program provides up to 100 $25,000 scholarships—and up to 1,000 more $2,000 awards. And if those aren't enough, there's also a milelong list of science-related scholarships at scholarships.com.

[Explore college majors with the best return on investment.]

In terms of private and institutional scholarships, I'd also suggest looking into accounting and other business majors, especially if you're already in college and thinking about pursuing an M.B.A. after your undergrad career (and if, unlike me, you have the kind of left brain required for crunching those kinds of numbers). Business schools tend to have the highest percentage of alumni in corporate-board and CEO positions, and that often means big donations for serious scholarships. The University of Pennsylvania's famed Wharton School, for example, distributed nearly $21 million in scholarships to its 2,500 undergrad business majors last year.

Your college major is a big decision, and, obviously, financial considerations shouldn't be your only reason for picking it. But when it is time to declare, these are a few numbers you'll want to keep in mind.

Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.