The best and worst college majors for your money

  • A new ranking of 162 college majors finds that certain STEM majors may put you on a path to a bright financial future, while arts concentrations land on the bottom of the list.
  • One important factor to consider when choosing a course of study — in addition to average income and unemployment — is whether or not you will have to shell out thousands of dollars for advanced degrees in order to compete.
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It turns out that your major is just as important — if not more — than where you go to school.

Personal finance website Bankrate.com ranked 162 college majors based on average annual income and unemployment rates.

New to the site's ranking this year was another consideration— the portion of degree holders who have advanced degrees. The higher the percentage, the more likely it will be that you will need to spend money on additional years in school — and either raid your savings to pay for it or rack up student debt that could lower your standard of living, according to Bankrate.com data analyst Adrian Garcia.

STEM — or science, technology, engineering and math — dominated the top five majors.

Actuarial science, despite having lower average income and higher unemployment than some of the other concentrations in the top five, came in first because higher education was less prevalent among graduates.

Rank Degree Average income Unemployment Higher degree holders
1 Actuarial science $108,658 2.3% 22%
2 Zoology $111,889 1.4% 68%
3 Nuclear engineering $108,591 1.8% 48%
4 Health and medical preparatory programs $130,308 2.3% 78%
5 Applied mathematics $105,679 2.0% 51%
Source: Bankrate.com

The bottom five was dominated by arts majors. It also includes clinical psychology, where 74 percent of individuals have earned higher degrees yet make an average of $51,022 per year.

Least valuable college majors

Rank Degree Average income Unemployment Higher degree holders
158 Visual and performing arts $43,996 4.0% 23%
159 Cosmetology services and culinary arts $42,362 4.7% 8%
160 Clinical psychology $51,022 4.8% 74%
161 Composition and speech $44,211 4.9% 26%
162 Miscellaneous fine arts $40,855 9.1% 13%
Source: Bankrate.com

The list is a reminder of how the decision about what to study can affect your quality of life.

"Realistically, people are not going to pick their majors based on what makes the most money," Garcia said.

However, you can use this information to adjust your lifestyle, such as opting to attend community college for part of your education or living with roommates to mitigate costs.

"You have to balance being practical with following your passion," Garcia said.

Bankrate.com used 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, which was obtained by IPUMS-USA.