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Average Annual Income for College Graduates by Major

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/8/2011

Knowing the average income by college major assists students to make financially sound career choices. Although an economic downturn has put a damper on average starting salary figures, there are some college majors that simply offer better remuneration than others. Do you know what they are?

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    Jobs and Salaries

    “Technische Universiteit Chalmers” by SieBot/Wikimedia Commons When Marsha Sinetar penned her book “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow” in 1989, it was hailed as a 'liberating' piece of writing. Students no longer felt compelled to follow statistics outlining the average income for colleage graduates by their major when choosing their current educational – and future career – paths.

    Now, in times of a serious economic downturn, her wisdom may still hold true but is not necessarily fiscally sound, especially for students taking out copious student loans to fund their educations. Not surprisingly, students are looking to highest paying college majors and average salaries first when choosing a major.

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    Which Majors Pay the Most?

    Students who want to get the maximum starting pay bang for their educational buck will do well to heed the findings of the National Association of Colleges and Employers(1). According to their records, starting salaries for tech majors are as follows:

    • Petroleum Engineering: $77,278
    • Chemical Engineering: $64,889
    • Computer Science: $60,473 (according to Georgia State University(2), in 2001, this figure stood at $52,723)

    From there exists a steep decline in starting pay when looking to liberal arts majors.

    • Sociology: $35,357 (startling 2001 stats placed this major at $28,812)
    • History: $38,731
    • English: $35,946 (in 2001, the salary started at $31,501)
    • Psychology: $32,260 (2001 figures show that the pay was $30,338)

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    Behind the Average Starting Salary for College Graduates

    As outlined by Talent Management Tech(3), the economic downturn has had a profound effect on the average starting salary of any college major. The class of 2010 will find that -- upon graduation – starting salaries for any bachelor’s degree holder have decreased by 2 percent when compared to those enjoyed by 2009 grads. The average income by major is likely to continue fluctuating over the next few years.

    At this time, an average starting salary is about $48,351 as compared to $49,353 just a year ago. In addition, companies report that they are cutting college hiring – with its historically higher starting salary requirements – by 7 percent. Even so, there is some flux within the majors. For example, psychology majors saw a 6.7 percent drop in pay when compared to last year. By comparison, sociology majors realized a 3.1 salary increase.

    This flux outlines the real challenge when researching the average income by college major: what do the trends show? Today’s respectable starting salary may actually showcase that the field’s pay scale is growing only slowly, which hints at a future stagnation. Case in point is the sociology college major; ever since 2001 it showed a healthy growth on a year by year basis. Psychology, on the other hand, also grew overall but only sluggishly, with last year finally showing negative growth.

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    While looking to dollars and cents when choosing a college major is a fiscally smart move, it pays to also keep an eye on the trends and developments after starting a course of study. Negative growth may be a good indicator that it is time for changing a major after enrollment.

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    Photo Credit: “Technische Universiteit Chalmers” by SieBot/Wikimedia Commons at