Special Report

Choosing These 20 College Majors Will Pay Off the Least

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a heightened sense of uncertainty about many aspects of American life, including higher education. Classes at American colleges and universities are resuming, though already, thousands of cases have been reported at campuses across the country, prompting some to suspend classes again. The crisis has forced many students to make a difficult choice about whether or not to continue their education, knowing that going to school means potentially risking their safety while also incurring further student debt in the midst of an economic crisis.

Student loan debt is soaring in the United States, overtaking both auto loans and credit card debt in recent years to become the second largest form of consumer debt, after only home mortgages. Americans hold a cumulative total of $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loans. 

This record high debt level is due in part to climbing tuition costs. The annual cost of attending a four-year private institution in the U.S. reached nearly $50,000 in 2019, more than double what it was less than two decades ago. This is how much it cost to attend college the year you were born

Using average annual earnings data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 24/7 Wall St. identified the college majors that will pay off the least. Average annual incomes of working Americans who chose these majors range from about $46,000 to just under $28,000. It is important to note that while these salaries are on the low end of the spectrum for adults with bachelor’s degrees, they are all well above the $13,364 annual salary for the average worker without a four-year degree. 

The subjects on this list are largely in areas like education, the humanities, and the arts. And for many Americans who go into these fields, earning potential after graduation is not their first priority. Occupations like social work or teaching are well suited to many students’ talents and interests, even though they are not typically high paying. 

Still, it is important to consider, and take measures to minimize, the financial burden of choosing these majors. This may mean applying for scholarships, or attending a school with lower-than-average tuition costs. Here is a list of the most affordable colleges with the best outcomes in each state.

Click here to see which 20 college majors will pay off the least
Click here to read our methodology

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20. Science and Computer Teacher Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $38,371
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.1%
> Total labor force: 78,457

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19. Cosmetology Services and Culinary Arts
> Avg. annual earnings: $38,343
> 2018 unemployment rate: 3.7%
> Total labor force: 59,238

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18. Theology and Religious Vocations
> Avg. annual earnings: $38,253
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.2%
> Total labor force: 337,277

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17. Human Services and Community Organization
> Avg. annual earnings: $38,015
> 2018 unemployment rate: 4.0%
> Total labor force: 112,720

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16. Mathematics Teacher Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $37,587
> 2018 unemployment rate: 1.2%
> Total labor force: 101,386

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15. Studio Arts
> Avg. annual earnings: $37,423
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.5%
> Total labor force: 107,321

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14. Special Needs Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $37,022
> 2018 unemployment rate: 1.0%
> Total labor force: 263,620

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13. Social Work
> Avg. annual earnings: $36,303
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.4%
> Total labor force: 554,692

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12. Social Science Or History Teacher Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $36,001
> 2018 unemployment rate: 1.5%
> Total labor force: 135,776

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11. Family and Consumer Sciences
> Avg. annual earnings: $34,182
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.7%
> Total labor force: 427,344

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10. Early Childhood Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $34,047
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.3%
> Total labor force: 236,209

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9. School Student Counseling
> Avg. annual earnings: $33,660
> 2018 unemployment rate: 1.0%
> Total labor force: 17,975

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8. General Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $32,730
> 2018 unemployment rate: 1.7%
> Total labor force: 1,722,417

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7. Miscellaneous Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $32,576
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.1%
> Total labor force: 184,307

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6. Art and Music Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $31,957
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.1%
> Total labor force: 269,778

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5. Language and Drama Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $31,931
> 2018 unemployment rate: 2.4%
> Total labor force: 229,978

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4. Teacher Education: Multiple Levels
> Avg. annual earnings: $30,670
> 2018 unemployment rate: 1.5%
> Total labor force: 106,545

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3. Secondary Teacher Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $29,363
> 2018 unemployment rate: 1.7%
> Total labor force: 193,386

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2. Library Science
> Avg. annual earnings: $28,873
> 2018 unemployment rate: 3.6%
> Total labor force: 25,389

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1. Elementary Education
> Avg. annual earnings: $27,542
> 2018 unemployment rate: 1.5%
> Total labor force: 1,343,882

Methodology:

To determine the college majors that will pay off the least, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data on average annual earnings from the Public Use Microdata Sample summary files of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey for over 170 bachelor’s degree fields. ACS respondents were asked to list majors they completed as part of a bachelor’s degree program, as well as additional questions on earnings, employment status, and workweek.

Data on unemployment among the civilian labor force and the size of the employed workforce for each major also came from the ACS PUMS files. In cases where respondents have received multiple degrees, only the first degree listed was considered.

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