Personal Finance

The 16 worst-paying college majors, five years after graduation

All three majors made a median annual income of $38,000, the lowest out of the 75 majors in the study

Jasmin Merdan | Getty

Students who major in liberal arts, performing arts and theology earn the lowest salaries within five years of graduating from college, a recent New York Federal Reserve analysis reveals.

All three majors made a median annual income of $38,000, the lowest out of the 75 majors in the study. Other low-paying majors include leisure and hospitality, history, fine arts and psychology, all of which made $40,000 or less per year.

For context, that's slightly less than the U.S. personal income median of $40,480 as of 2022, per the latest data available from the U.S. Census.

Here's a look at what the lowest-paying majors earn early in their careers.

With liberal arts degrees, graduates tend to get paid less overall, for various reasons. For one, their skills may not be directly related to generating revenue, even if their vocation is a benefit to society.

Or, it can be a case of too few well-paying jobs compared with the number of graduates each year, as is the case for fine arts degrees. As such, the lack of demand can drive down wages.

Education majors tend to be paid less, as well. While teachers have good job security, summers off and pensions, they're usually paid by state governments, which have lagged in keeping wages commensurate with inflation. In recent years, the "teacher pay penalty" has gotten worse, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Unfortunately for teachers, they don't fare much better later in their careers. When looking at "mid-career" graduates — those ages 35 to 45 — education majors are the worst paid among all majors.

Here's a look at the mid-career rankings.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Includes full-time U.S. workers with at least a bachelor's degree

Early childhood education majors in the middle of their careers earn the least out of all majors. With a median annual income of $48,000, they only make $8,000 more than they do right after graduation.

In contrast, the highest-paid majors for both early and mid-career earners tend to be in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM fields. 

Engineers earn the highest median income right after college, with computer engineers ranked first at $80,000 per year. Their pay grows to $133,000 by the time they've reached the ages of 35 to 45, the highest of all majors.

It's worth mentioning that mid-career graduates all make more than the U.S. personal income median of $40,480. The median pay for all mid-career majors is $75,500, according to the New York Fed.

Data for this annual study was compiled from U.S. Census data from 2022, the most recent available. The study excludes majors currently enrolled in school and is limited to a working-age population of those ages 25 to 65 who work full-time, with a bachelor's degree or higher.

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