Here Are the Most Popular College Degrees - Too Bad They're Not the Most Valuable

As U.S. colleges and universities launch hundreds of thousands of new graduates into the world, many are seguing directly into new careers, while others will join the ranks of the job seeker. Of the latter group, some will find success fairly quickly in their search for educationally appropriate work, while others will not.

Why do some graduates find the job of their dreams, while others languish in a state of underemployment - or, worse, unemployment? As you may expect, much has to do with the actual diploma attained by these graduates. Some are in fields that are in demand, while too many others are not.

A disparity between popularity and utility
Comparing the number of college degrees bestowed with the type of career track that would essentially guarantee an ambitious graduate a job right out of college shows an immediate problem: the two simply don't match up.

The U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics is a wealth of information about the types of degrees American students choose to pursue. With data going back to the early 1970s, it is easy to see that, despite evidence that degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have become more highly valued over the past few years, the number of degrees awarded has not risen along with demand.

Conversely, degrees in the liberal arts are less desired by employers, yet students still pursue diplomas in this area, represented in the chart below by the designation "humanities":

Percentage, by Discipline, of Total U.S. Bachelor's Degrees Awarded by Year

Academic Year

Humanities (Liberal Arts)

Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Computer Science and Engineering



























Source: Dept. of Education

Even the high number of business degrees awarded is surprising, considering the fact that the Great Recession wiped out nearly a half-million financial sector positions thus far. Still, 18% of employers are looking for applicants with such a degree, compared with only 2% who are actively seeking liberal arts graduates.

STEM jobs rule
On the other hand, 27% of employers have noted that engineering and computer science graduates are the type of employee they want to hire these days, and this view is apparently shared by other companies, as well. PayScale has a list of the top 10 college majors with the greatest compensation potential, and each one is in engineering, computer science, or math.

Petroleum engineering tops the list, with income potential of $160,000 after 15 years in the industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a median pay of $130,000 in 2012, with a stellar job outlook through 2022.

Similarly, actuarial mathematics paid a median of $93,680 in 2012, with the same excellent job outlook as petroleum engineering. PayScale puts the mid-career salary at $120,000. 

Computer engineering jobs are hot, as well. Computer engineers can make well over $100,000 by mid-career, although the BLS notes that these particular jobs are not experiencing a lot of growth. Other computer science jobs, such as computer and information systems managers, are experiencing much faster growth - and pay a median salary of nearly $121,000 annually. 

It is difficult to understand why STEM degrees are not being more heavily pursued, while others that are much less lucrative continue to experience high popularity among college students.

Hopefully, statistics like these will prove the value of doing some homework before choosing a college and career track - resulting in better job matches between the educated and in-demand, well-paying jobs in the future.

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