Another Top-10 List — Lowest Paying College Majors

A college education, at first glance, seems to be a no-brainer for everyone. Several years ago a Dallas Federal Reserve study in Texas found a typical Texas college grad ends up making 97 percent more than those without college degrees, on average, over their earnings lifetime. Among young adults today, median earnings for those with a Bachelor degree is $46,900 compared to $30,000 for just high school graduates according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Last week one of my four presentations was an event in Albuquerque — a city facing some significant issues on job growth. [See my previous blog last year on New Mexico at ] When sitting at the counter waiting to order dinner, the wait person asked what I was doing in New Mexico. I explained I was an economist, and speaking at a housing conference. She then asked why she made so little? So I inquired what had she studied at college. Social Work was the answer – and she was working in a restaurant since Social Work jobs paid so little. I recalled having recently read an article on the lowest paying college salaries which included Social Work, so I passed that link along to her.

I have always looked at the attainment of a college degree for many as merely their ticket to the next door. What they then make out of themselves now relies on their own initiatives. But I also believe that the actual field in which the major is obtained can be a significant restriction for a substantial number of people since they may have relegated themselves into a lower-paying line of work, which in some circumstances may include lifelong earnings caps.

First some baseline personal beliefs:

  • Some of the most successful people I have met in my life have no college degree at all. A few even had only a GED and are millionaires.
  • Many with college degrees are shortchanging themselves by not delivering their potential – regardless of their major of study.
  • Not everyone should be college bound since there are so many jobs today that do not require that type of education nor the accompanying potential student loans. Just think of the apprenticeship programs that create lifelong well paying jobs in high demand. Electricians, plumbers, linemen – to name just a few. Pay is a true function of supply and demand, along with value added.
  • Statistics can be very misleading. The median, for example, is merely that point in which one-half of all observations are greater and one-half are less (or if an even number of observations it is the average of the middle two).

So what are the worst paying college majors? According to a recent USA Today article:

8-25-14a graph

These data in no way dictate lifetime annual earnings. Nor do they even represent all recent graduates since there are always some making more and less than these medians.

To read the entire USA Today article click

Do I believe that college is good for everyone? No.

Now the Rest of the Story on the individual with the Bachelor’s degree in Social Work that was my server. I am willing to bet part of this individual’s lack of income is a function of her work ethic or lack thereof. I ordered the cheese enchiladas Christmas, which means both with red and green chile sauce. My first order came out so late (she was talking freely to her friends and other wait staff for more than 30 minutes), that when I took a bite even the cheese had solidified and turned cold. They took that plate away and then returned in less than two minutes with a replacement – but it was missing two bites (and I had only had one). I think it was my original plate microwaved that someone sampled to make certain it was warm.

She then said would get another order, which she did, but in this plate the center of enchiladas was still frozen. Her response was “I guess it’s just not your day.”

The economic and sociological tally:

  • Three servings of enchiladas with zero income to the hotel-restaurant – I sent them all back.
  • Zero dinner for Ted
  • Zero tip for the server
  • No apology was ever offered by the server, just a statement from her that “You must be bad luck.”

Something tells me a non-high school graduate could have done better.

All said, I do believe some accountability of the income, or lack thereof, for many college grads should be placed on their own shoulders. For their education choices and performance.



  1. Anonymous

    I just want to say thanks for the opportunity to send my son a meaningful message on his first day of college.

  2. Blythe McDonald

    Another issue is that for some of these careers a 4 year degree is seen as sub-par. Yes, you can practice and do work (and sometimes very honorable work) with a Bachelor’s in Social Work or Child Dev/Psych, but until you get your Master’s, you are often stuck at the bottom. Plus there is a requirement for many of these jobs for work experience prior to certification, meaning un-paid or low-paid time on the job before the (still-low) salary kicks in.

    The sad thing to me is that so many of these are vocations of service to needy populations, it would be nice to see education fall off the list of lowest paying jobs!

  3. Anonymous

    Great one Ted. Good to ponder as I have 2 boys in high school – I’m sure they’ll enjoy reading this.

  4. Louise Dutton

    Love this article! There’s some saying out there about “It’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.” Doesn’t matter if you have a PhD if you choose to sit on the couch.

  5. David Havelka

    Please don’t let the secret out about how well Plumbers are paid. Of course I am kidding we dedicate much our time to hiring the best qualified in the industry.

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