Actuarial science is the most valuable college major, according to a study of 162 degrees by Bankrate.
To determine the most valuable majors, Bankrate analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. Within this data set, Bankrate researchers looked at what bachelor’s degree holders who were either employed or unemployed reported as their first major and income for the past 12 months. Researchers evaluated majors based on graduates’ unemployment rate, average salary, and the number of graduates with a post-secondary degree.
Here are the top 15 most valuable majors, according to Bankrate:
1. Actuarial Science
3. Nuclear Engineering
4. Health and Medical Preparatory Programs
5. Applied Mathematics
6. Pharmacy, Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Administration
7. Molecular Biology
8. Mechanical Engineering
9. Civil Engineering (tie)
9. Finance (tie)
11. Chemical Engineering
12. Electrical Engineering
13. Biochemical Sciences
14. Computer Engineering
15. Public Policy
Actuarial science graduates earn more on average than their peers ($108,658) and face a lower unemployment rate (2.3%), Adrian Garcia writes for Bankrate. And only 22% of actuarial science majors hold a higher secondary degree, which suggests that graduates in this field don’t need additional schooling to find a job, he adds.
Students who are interested in actuarial science need strong technical skills in “math or computers— anything analytical,” says Sue Vagts, director of the Actuarial Science Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
These students need soft skills, too. “In business, you have to have good communication skills because it doesn’t matter how many problems you can solve if you can’t convert that to a business application or explain in a way people can understand,” Vagts says.
How to make any degree valuable
Fine arts, humanities, and education majors ranked lower in Bankrate’s study. These grads had a lower average income and a higher unemployment rate than their peers.
Liberal arts graduates typically earn less than STEM and business students, but that isn’t preordained, says Matthew Sigelman, the chief executive of Burning Glass. While humanities grads already have in-demand soft skills, like critical thinking and communication, they can boost their earning potential if they develop complementary technical skills, he explains.
“The biggest myth we see is by choosing a major you’re basically choosing the career you have for the rest of your life,” says Harry Twyman, director of The Major Experience at the University of Connecticut (UConn). “Business is a good example. A lot of students think if they want to go into the business field, they have to get a business degree when in fact we’re seeing history graduates, English graduates and psychology graduates go into that field.”
UConn advises students to focus on the soft skills they can learn from their major, writes Garcia. The university’s Major Experience program encourages students to explore different majors and learn about potential careers.
“Essentially all a major does is say, ‘Hey, I studied a little bit more classes in this area than opposed to others,'” Twyman says. “Those big skills, for the most part, are built in any major” (Garcia, BankRate, 9/10; Bankrate study, accessed 9/11).