The latest statistics regarding student loan debt in the United States are sobering, to say the least. As of 2020, students in America owe a collective balance of $1.57 trillion, up 12% since the previous year. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that prospective college students are eyeing degrees that promise a good return on investment. After all, there’s nothing more worrying than taking out a loan on your education with the possibility that you won’t be able to pay it off in the future. One sure way to avoid this potential pitfall is to choose a major from among the highest paying bachelor’s degrees available.
Need an online option? Not to worry. Most of the best college degrees for employment are available via distance learning formats. So if you’re looking for the highest paying online bachelor’s degree programs, you’re in the right place.
Methodology for Finding the Best Bachelor Degrees 2021
To identify the 20 highest paying bachelor degrees, our editors consulted PayScale.com’s recent college salary report to identify undergraduate majors associated with the highest return on investment, according to mid-career pay. This figure refers to the median annual wage for professionals with more than ten years of experience in their respective fields. Below, we’ve ranked the 20 highest paying college majors in descending order.
1. Petroleum Engineering
If you’re looking for the number one highest-paying bachelor’s degree, look no further than the field of petroleum engineering. While it may sound like an intimidating career to break into, all that’s required to begin work as a professional petroleum engineer is a four-year degree, though some positions may also require some prior work experience. Once hired, you’ll work with other engineers who specialize in oil and gas extraction, coming up with innovative methods for procuring the energy that literally runs the world. Your exact duties and responsibilities may vary depending on the type of petroleum engineering you’re contracted to perform. There are several different types of petroleum engineers, including reservoir engineers, drilling engineers, completions engineers, and production engineers.
Mid-Career Salary: $182,000
2. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS)
Among the most lucrative degrees in our ranking is the unique EECS major, which covers in-demand skills and concepts in the fields of both electrical engineering and computer science. Since each of these fields are challenging enough in their own right, you can imagine the intense academic rigor that a combined major might entail. Still, if you can stand the heat, the payoff of earning such a degree will be worth your while. A professional with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science can expect to make upwards of $100,000 per year right out of the gate. Ten years in, this already handsome salary will likely increase by 50% or even more.
Mid-Career Salary: $152,300
3. Applied Economics and Management (TIE)
Students interested in working in the field of business will be happy to learn that one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees is a major in Applied Economics and Management. After studying fundamental topics in micro and macroeconomics and management theory, students who elect this lucrative major will enjoy rewarding careers as business analysts, marketing specialists, account executives, auditors, and more. It is important to note that the salary for entry-level applied economics and management professional may seem underwhelming, but it often doubles within a decade on the job.
Mid-Career Salary: $139,600
3. Operations Research (TIE)
Operations research is not only one of the highest paying majors available; it’s also one of the fastest-growing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment opportunities for operations research analysts are expected to grow by 25% over the next eight years. Operations research specialists are sought-after by companies who want to increase their efficiency and save money by improving their business processes, especially those related to transportation and logistics. As an operations research major, you can expect to study topics such as data analytics, supply chain management, accounting, and inventory planning, for instance. Upon graduation, students may become gainfully employed as production planners, distribution managers, quality assurance analysts, supply chain planners, and more.
Mid-Career Salary: $139,600
4. Public Accounting
Among the highest-paying bachelor degrees available is an undergraduate major in Public Accounting. This major prepares students to work as certified public accountants, serving individuals, non-profit organizations, and corporations with their advanced knowledge of finance and tax law. Once enrolled in such a program, students will study a wide range of topics such as auditing, business law, finance, and managerial accounting, for instance. Some programs provide specific preparation for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licensing examination. Though early-career pay for this major is one of the lowest in our ranking, you can expect your salary to double after ten years of work experience.
Mid-Career Salary: $138,800
5. Chemical Engineering/Materials Science and Engineering
The engineering industry is currently experiencing a high demand for engineers knowledgeable in chemical engineering and materials science. As a result, more schools are offering undergraduate majors that combine these two fields of study. Students enrolled in this highest paying bachelor degree program will explore high-level engineering topics such as chemical kinetics, thermodynamics, materials production, and reaction engineering, for example, as one of the best college majors for the future, chemical engineering/materials science and engineering degree plans prepare students for fast-growing careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that jobs for chemists and material scientists are currently growing faster than average.
Mid-Career Salary: $137,800
6. Quantitative Business Analysis
Mathematically inclined students who want to pursue one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees available should consider a major in Quantitative Business Analysis. This major prepares students to apply knowledge of mathematical and statistical concepts to solve real-world business problems. Topics covered through such a degree plan may include data analysis, business strategy, project management, and information technology, for example. This course of study will qualify students for jobs in data analytics, risk management, market research, and related areas.
Mid-Career Salary: $136,200
Undergraduate students interested in entering a lucrative subfield of the healthcare industry may consider a major in pharmacy. While an advanced degree is required to become a licensed pharmacist, there are many other related positions for those who hold a four-year degree. In fact, some of the highest-paid bachelor degree jobs are those in the pharmaceutical industry. Some of these include pharmaceutical sales representative, pharmacy technician, and pharmaceutical consultant. In addition to a generous salary, a degree in pharmacy is also a safe bet in terms of job security; demand for healthcare professionals continues to grow at a steady pace as the baby boomer population ages.
Mid-Career Salary: $133,200
8. Aeronautics & Astronautics
One of the more obscure majors in our list of highest paying bachelor’s degrees is Aeronautics & Astronautics. This undergraduate degree is primarily designed to prepare students for careers in aerospace engineering, though graduates may also decide to pursue careers in teaching, research, or consulting. The degree plan comprises fundamental topics in mathematics and engineering and more major-specific courses in applied aerodynamics, autonomy, and spacecraft design, for example. Though the field of aeronautics and astronautics is relatively small, it’s still considered one of the best college majors for the future due to its steady growth and impressive return on investment.
Mid-Career Salary: $133,100
9. Systems Engineering
Clearly, engineering is one of the best bachelor’s degrees one can earn in future financial security. Systems engineering, in particular, happens to be one of the highest-paying majors for undergraduates. Entry-level systems engineers make nearly $75,000 per year post-graduation, while seasoned professionals routinely earn over $130,000 annually. Systems engineers work on big-picture problems to improve an organization’s efficiency and workflow. Often, this requires a high-level grasp of technological processes and systems. Systems engineers are needed in a wide range of industries, including transportation and health care.
Mid-Career Salary: $132,900
10. Electrical Power Engineering
Another engineering major that made our list of highest paying bachelor’s degrees is that of electrical power engineering. These engineers are responsible for improving existing systems that harness and manage electric energy and develop new energy solutions. To prepare for the role of an electrical power engineer, students must subscribe to a rigorous course of study that addresses complex topics like circuitry, electromagnetics, signal analysis, and more. Even as more renewable energy sources become prevalent, electrical power engineering remains one of the best college majors for the future, with jobs remaining on a steady incline over the better part of the next decade.
Mid-Career Salary: $130,700
11. Actuarial Mathematics
Perhaps one of the best bachelor degrees on our list, a major in actuarial mathematics, prepares students for the in-demand career of an actuary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for actuaries are currently growing much faster than average. These professionals are tasked with managing risks, primarily for insurance companies and private corporations. To prepare for this role, students will engage in a course of study that addresses topics such as econometrics, financial accounting, probability theory, and numerical computing. Though mid-career professionals can expect to make roughly $130,000 per year, be prepared to start out making less than half of that salary as an entry-level actuary.
Mid-Career Salary: $130,500
12. Aerospace Studies
Making our list of the highest-paying college majors, aerospace studies is among the broader majors available for students interested in aerospace science. Students who pursue this degree may elect specializations such as aerospace engineering, aerospace administration, and even professional pilot. Depending on their chosen concentration, an aerospace studies major will study aerospace resource management, flight physiology, and aircraft systems, for example. The track may also affect pay upon graduation, but you can expect to start with a salary of roughly $50,000 per year and advance to wages well above six figures after ten years of work experience.
Mid-Career Salary: $130,300
13. Chemical Engineering
Another engineering major that has garnered attention as one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees is chemical engineering. Chemical engineers enjoy one of the better starting salaries in our ranking at just under $75,000 per year on average. Mid-career, these professionals are handsomely rewarded with wages hovering around $130,000 annually. Of course, their duties and responsibilities are in line with these high earnings. Chemical engineers rely on their knowledge of chemical materials and processes to solve real-world problems on behalf of manufacturers, private corporations, and government and non-profit agencies. Bachelor’s degree programs in chemical engineering prepare students to take on these tasks by studying advanced industry topics such as thermodynamics, organic chemistry, biochemical engineering, and transport processes.
Mid-Career Salary: $128,900
14. Actuarial Science
Like actuarial mathematics (another of our highest paying bachelor degree options), an actuarial science major prepares graduates to work as actuaries. While there is little actual difference between a four-year degree in actuarial mathematics and actuarial science, you may earn a slightly higher annual wage with the former credential. The curricula for both degrees will likely be similar, covering advanced topics in mathematics and statistics and more specialized concepts like risk management, data mining, and probability theory. Many programs also prepare students to sit for the necessary licensing examinations to become a certified actuary. Due to the lucrative salary and high demand for qualified professionals in the field, the job of an actuary is one of the best college majors for the future.
Mid-Career Salary: $128,700
15. Information and Computer Science
Widely known as one of the best college degrees for employment, an information and computer science major can prepare you for one of many lucrative high-tech careers. Some of these jobs include database administrator, computer programmer, information security analyst, computer network architect, and software developer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these positions are not only some of the highest-paid bachelor degree jobs, but they’re also some of the fastest-growing. The Bureau’s projections show an 11% increase in employment opportunities for computer and information science professionals between 2019 and 2029.
Mid-Career Salary: $127,600
16. Aeronautical Engineering
If designing aircraft and aircraft components sounds like a dream job, then you’ll be excited to learn that aeronautical engineering is one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees available. Though similar to some of the other most lucrative degrees in our ranking, such as aeronautics and astronautics and aerospace engineering and studies, aeronautical engineering focuses specifically on the design and development of aircraft built to be flown inside the Earth’s atmosphere. The curriculum for such a program may include courses that address topics like structural analysis, propulsion system design, gas dynamics, and aerodynamics, for example.
Mid-Career Salary: $125,900
17. Operations and Information Systems Management (OISM) (TIE)
Since it marries two in-demand career paths—business and information technology—it should come as no surprise that operations and information systems management is one of the best college majors for the future. With an associated mid-career salary of over $125,000 on average, it’s also one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees you can earn. Students who enroll in an OISM degree plan will take courses addressing business and tech topics like information security, systems analysis, business information systems, and database management, for example. Graduates are qualified for roles as operations research analysts, industrial production managers, management analysts, logisticians, and more.
Mid-Career Salary: $125,100
17. Political Economy (TIE)
Students who pursue a major in political economy examine the complex relationship between the government and the economy. They explore topics such as economic policy, globalization, social inequality, and international finance, for instance. A wide variety of career opportunities in government, education, and law await graduates of political economy degree programs, making it one of the best college degrees for employment. Many students also pursue advanced degrees in a field related to political economy.
Mid-Career Salary: $125,100
18. Marine Engineering
Just as aerospace engineers design air and spacecraft, marine engineers build and conceptualize watercraft such as boats and ships. Some types of marine engineers specialize in certain parts of a ship, such as the propulsion or steering system. The course of study for an undergraduate degree in marine engineering will cover fundamental engineering concepts as well as major-specific topics like diesel power, thermodynamics, engine maintenance, and machine tool operations. With an average mid-career salary well into the six figures, marine engineering is one of the highest paying degrees at the bachelor’s level.
Mid-Career Salary: $125,000
19. Computer Systems Engineering
Bridging the fields of information technology and engineering, a major in computer systems engineering is, not surprisingly, one of the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees one can pursue as well as one of the best college majors for the future. Students with aspirations of careers in database management, software development, or computer architecture will find the necessary preparation in a computer systems engineering degree plan. Once enrolled, these students will study high-tech topics such as digital logic, machine learning, and computer hardware systems.
Mid-Career Salary: $124,800
20. Nuclear Engineering
Though not exactly one of the best college degrees for employment, a nuclear engineering major is still one of the highest paying bachelor degree options. Unfortunately, positions for nuclear engineering are currently on a sharp downward slope, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is due to a decreased reliance on nuclear energy. Still, graduates of a four-year degree in nuclear engineering may qualify for other positions in the industry, including power systems operator, reliability engineer, or critical facilities control technician, for example.
Mid-Career Salary: $124,500
Most college hopefuls have heard the advice, “follow your passion.” While well-intended, this guidance could lead you to the foothills of a mountain of student loan debt, if you’re not careful. Doing what you love is important, but so is paying the bills. With that in mind, it’s wise to at least consider the highest-paying college majors before declaring your chosen path of study. Fortunately, there are many options to choose from, whether you’re looking for the highest paying online bachelor’s degree programs or something more traditional.
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This has been our ranking of the top 20 highest paying bachelor’s degrees.