Updated on 03.17.16

10 College Degrees That Could Pay Off in 2015

Student studying for an exam

Majoring in marketing or computer science could improve your job prospects after graduation. Photo: Mer Chau

Recent news about the rising costs of college has been nothing short of dark and dreary. By all accounts, the price tag of higher education has been skyrocketing — and student bank accounts simply cannot keep up.

Government data show that college costs for the 2011–12 academic year were approximately $14,300 at public institutions and $37,800 at private, nonprofit institutions — that’s a 28% to 40% increase since the 2001-2002 school year, even after adjusting for inflation.

It’s no wonder many students can’t afford college without borrowing for the privilege — and it shows. With a collective $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, millennials are now reportedly putting off marriage, home ownership, and starting a family, just so they can service their barely-manageable debt loads. Some students even claim that student loans are holding them back from achieving the American dream, and it’s easy to see why.

Is a College Degree Worth It?

With nothing but bad news about college costs and student loans in the media, it’s equally easy to see why some high school graduates might be tempted to skip college altogether. But, as most experts agree, that isn’t necessarily the answer.

A new paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that the ROI (return on investment) for a bachelor’s degree has hovered around the 14%-15% range since 2000, making it a sound investment choice in most cases. That’s because, according to the research, college graduates tend to earn about 75% more than high school graduates over the course of a lifetime — up to $1 million dollars more, in fact.

Choosing a Bachelor’s Degree That Pays Off

Of course, some degrees pay off more than others, and that might be the key to ensuring that any student loan debt you take on is worth it. Fortunately, finding the ROI for specific degrees is not as difficult as one might think. Data on employment, wages, and job growth is out there, but you typically have to dig for it yourself.

With that in mind, I researched many college degrees in the United States, as well as their potential outcomes in the job market. Using Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Department of Labor data on job growth and average annual earnings, I compiled this list of college degrees that are likely to pay off in 2015 and beyond:

No. 10: Civil Engineering

As the population grows and cities expand, more bridges, buildings, airports, and dams need to be built — not to mention the existing ones that need to be repaired or maintained. That’s where civil engineers come in.

Given our nation’s aging infrastructure and the many new projects expected to break ground across the country in the coming years, the BLS predicts that employment for civil engineers will increase 20% from 2012 to 2022. The annual mean wage for this profession was $80,770 in 2013, with the top 10% of earners making $126,190; even the bottom 10% still earned a respectable $51,810.

Industries paying the highest annual mean wages to civil engineers in 2013 were Oil and Gas Extraction ($118,790), Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping, and Payroll Services ($110,910), and Waste Treatment and Disposal ($101,750).

No. 9: Logistics

As the world economy grows, logisticians work tirelessly to find creative ways to move products seamlessly from production to the consumer. And since they work in nearly every industry, the employment opportunities in this field are only limited by the number of products that are produced and delivered in any given year.

Because of the overall demand, the BLS predicts that employment for logisticians will increase 22% from 2012 to 2022, or twice the average for all occupations combined. Students who earn a degree in this field will also be treated to healthy wages: The annual mean wage for logisticians was $73,400 in 2013, and the top 10% of earners made an average of $112,750.

Logisticians were paid the most in the District of Columbia ($99,850), Maryland ($86,400), and Virginia ($86,070).

No. 8: Health Care Administration

It’s no secret that the health care industry is booming, and any type of job within the industry is likely to be a good bet. However, certain health care careers are expected to grow a little faster than the rest, and one of those happens to be health care administration.

According to the BLS, employment for health care administrators, also known as medical and health services managers, is expected to increase 23% during the decade leading up to 2022, as the industry adds another 73,300 jobs. And with all the demand, salaries remain relatively high as well. The BLS reports that the annual mean wage for this career was $90,940 in May of 2013, with the top 10% of earners making $155,130.

In 2013, health care administrators earned the most in the District of Columbia ($123,120), California ($118,040), and New York ($118,020).

No. 7: Petroleum Engineering

Energy production is booming again in the U.S., and as we use up the earth’s limited supply of oil, petroleum engineers will come up with strategies to find the rest of the oil and bring it to the market. And since finding and extracting oil becomes a more complex process with each passing year, students who earn a degree in petroleum engineering will likely be rewarded for their expertise.

The BLS predicts the employment for petroleum engineers will grow by as much as 26% from 2012 to 2022. High demand for this career also leads to high wages. According to the BLS, the annual mean wage for petroleum engineers was $132,320 in 2013. Furthermore, the top ten percent of earners brought home a cool $186,520. The states with the highest annual mean wages for petroleum engineers were Alaska ($160,340), Texas ($159,340), and Kansas ($155,160).

No. 6: Actuarial Science

In the complicated field of insurance, actuaries use complex mathematical models to assess risk and determine the precise price that provides a value to the customer while ensuring a likely profit for the business. However, the math behind majoring in this discipline is decidedly less complex: Students who pursue a degree in actuarial science will likely find that their decision pays off.

That’s because, according to the BLS, employment for these professionals is expected to increase 26 percent from 2012 to 2022 as insurance companies grow and expand. And wages are high too; the annual mean wage for actuaries was $94,340 nationally in May of 2013. Furthermore, the top 10% of actuaries brought in an average wage of $176,190 that same year.

Industries paying actuaries the highest annual mean wage in 2013 were Legal Services ($240,500), Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services ($119,440), and the Federal Executive Branch ($116,210).

No. 5: Biomedical Engineering

The prevalence of technology in modern medicine means that professionals who understand both disciplines should be in high demand. Students who’ve earned a degree in biomedical engineering have found themselves graduating into a field with plenty of opportunity and historically high wages.

And that’s not expected to change any time soon. The BLS projects that employment for biomedical engineers will increase 27% in the decade leading up to 2022. Furthermore, annual mean wages averaged out to $88,670 in May of 2013, with the top 10% of earners making $143,000 and the bottom 10% still earning $54,100.

The three industries that paid biomedical engineers the most in 2013 were Specialized Design Services ($115,300), Offices of Physicians ($103,890), and Scientific Research and Development Services ($102,000).

No. 4: Financial Planning

We all have to deal with money, and that means there will always be a need for personal financial advisors. That’s why many students choose to pursue a degree in this field, and a high percentage of them choose to take things a step further by becoming a CFP, or Certified Financial Planner.

For many of them, this degree will pay off. The BLS reports the job openings for financial advisors could increase as much as 27% between 2012 and 2022. Annual mean wages are high too, with the average personal financial advisor making $75,320 in 2013.

Advisors in certain states earned even more. The states paying the highest annual mean wage for this profession in 2013 were Connecticut ($136,680), New York ($133,110), and Massachusetts ($130,400).

No. 3: Geography

You don’t typically hear about geography as a growing profession, mainly because there are so few people in this field to begin with. According to the BLS, only 1,700 geographers were employed in the U.S. in 2012.

However, students who earn a degree in geography could find themselves in high demand in the coming years. That’s because, according to the BLS, employment in this field is expected to increase 29% from 2012 to 2022. Wages are healthy too: Government data show the annual mean wage for geographers was $74,750 in 2013, with the top 10% of earners making well over $100,000.

The three industries that paid geographers the highest annual mean wage in 2013 were Scientific Research and Development Services ($90,210), Federal Executive Branch ($81,050), and Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services ($66,190).

No. 2: Marketing

New businesses come and go year-round, creating a constant stream of opportunities for marketing professionals who know how to create ad campaigns that effectively sell products and services.

Thanks to a growing economy, the BLS projects healthy employment for students who earn a degree in this field. Specifically, government data show that the number of jobs for market research analysts will increase 32% between 2012 and 2022, nearly three times as fast as the average for all occupations combined. Annual mean wages for market research analysts and marketing specialists were relatively high, too — $60,800 as of May 2013. However, the top 10% of earners brought home an average of $114,250.

The three industries paying market research analysts the highest annual mean wage in 2013 were Support Activities for Mining ($101,530), Semiconductor and Other Electronic Component Manufacturing ($98,320), and Motor Vehicle Manufacturing ($96,470).

No. 1: Computer Science

For years, computer programming has been heralded as the career of the future in our country, and around the world. And while the industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past two decades, that’s still very much the case. Fortunately, it’s not too late for students to get in on the ground floor of next-generation computer science and gain an in-depth understanding of computers, software, and coding.

Careers that require a computer science degree are expected to take off over the coming decade. For example, the BLS reports that employment for information security analysts is expected to increase 37% in the decade leading up to 2022. Furthermore, jobs for computer systems analysts are expected to increase 25% during the same time frame.

Wages aren’t too shabby, either. The BLS reports that the annual mean wage for information security analysts and computer systems analysts was $88,590 and $81,190, respectively, in 2013.

Don’t Make a ‘Major’ Mistake

With student loan debt at an all-time high, it’s important to choose a college degree that makes financial sense. After all, you’ll eventually have to pay back every dollar you borrow — plus interest.

This list is a good start, but it doesn’t include information on every college degree that is expected to be a good investment over the coming decade. If you’re interested in researching more careers with solid earning and growth potential, check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics at BLS.gov and the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop for more information.

Holly Johnson is a wife, mother of two, and frugal lifestyle enthusiast. She is the co-founder of Club Thrifty and a staff writer at Get Rich Slowly, Frugal Travel Guy, The Simple Dollar, and U.S. News & World Report’s “My Money Blog.” Holly has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger Personal Finance, Fox Business, Forbes, and Daily Finance.

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