As the cost of college continues to skyrocket and U.S. student debt totals rise, selecting a major in a field that pays well and offers long-term professional opportunities can be a crucial decision for students.
"Choosing a major might seem like no big deal, but it's one of the few choices you make as a 19- or 20-year-old that can have an outsized impact on your entire career — and possibly your whole life," Chris Kolmar, co-founder of career planning site Zippia, tells CNBC Make It.
Zippia analyzed the most recent Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) data from the American Community Survey (ACS), to determine the average annual income of graduates with 174 college majors. When looking at workers between the ages of 29 and 31 who were employed the whole year and worked at least 35 hours per week, Kolmar and his team found that petroleum engineering stands out as the highest-paying college major — by far.
The average annual income students who graduate with a degree in petroleum engineering is about $169,680 per year, according to Zippia, while graduates of the second-highest paying major earn closer to $95,351 a year on average.
According to U.S. News and World Report, the best college for those who want to study petroleum engineering is University of Texas Permian Basin, where petroleum engineering majors can expect median starting salaries of about $119,500.
Here are the 10 highest-paying college majors of 2019 according to Zippia:
Average annual income: $79,086
Average annual income: $80,048
Average annual income: $82,560
Average annual income: $83,754
Average annual income: $84,104
Average annual income: $86,941
Average annual income: $89,799
Average annual income: $90,085
Average annual income: $95,351
Average annual income: $169,680
This is not the first year that petroleum engineering has been named the highest-paying college major. In 2018, salary comparison site PayScale surveyed 2.3 million graduates from over 2,700 colleges across the U.S. and found that workers with this degree earn around $94,000 at the beginning of their careers, and an occupation-wide average of $175,000 a year.
But just because petroleum engineer can offer some sky-high salaries doesn't mean that all students should rush to change their major right away. Workers in the petroleum industry report above-average stress levels, below-average flexibility and below-average work-life balance. They must also contend with the uncertainty that surrounds the oil and gas industry.
Other high-paying majors on Zippia's list include numerous science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, including applied mathematics, physics and chemical engineering.
"Like most other studies that look at the link between earnings and majors, the highest paying majors are STEM or have some basis in math, such as economics and finance," says Kolmar. "These majors lead to jobs that are in high demand — jobs that have a need for analytical skills or specific types of sciences.
"When you're selecting a college major, you should consider how that choice will set you up for your career. If you're looking to snag a high-paying job out of college, you should ideally look for a subject you're passionate about, but that there's also a market for on the hiring front."
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