There are well over 100 different majors college students can potentially choose, and it's no big secret that graduating college will generally boost your earnings power. Having said that, there's a huge difference in earning power among the choices. Not only do some earn dramatically more than others, but many fields have minuscule unemployment rates and some high-earning fields don't require education beyond a bachelor's degree to attain a six-figure salary.
With that in mind, a recent Bankrate report examined 162 college majors and the Americans who hold degrees in them to determine which were the most and least valuable as defined by three factors -- average annual income, unemployment rate, and the need for a graduate degree. Here are the five most valuable and a bit about why each one ranked so highly.
1. Actuarial science
A close cousin of mathematics and statistics, actuarial scientists use numerical methods to assess risk, often in the insurance or finance industries. The average income of an actuarial science graduate is $108,658 annually, which is actually only the third-highest of the majors on this list. Additionally, the 2.3% unemployment rate for workers with actuarial science degrees is tied for last out of these five professions.
So why is actuarial science ranked as the most valuable college major? Simply put, most actuarial science graduates achieve their six-figure salaries with just a bachelor's degree. Only 22% of the graduates surveyed held higher degrees, by far the lowest percentage on this list.
Zoology is the study of animals and their behavior, and people with Zoology degrees work as research scientists, ecologists, environmental consultants, and more. While more than two-thirds of zoology graduates hold master's degrees or higher, the average income in the field is an impressive $111,889. Furthermore, only 1.4% of zoology degree holders are unemployed -- the lowest rate on the list.
3. Nuclear engineering
With the trend toward cleaner and renewable energy sources, it's no surprise that nuclear engineers are in demand right now. With just a 1.8% unemployment rate and an average salary of $108,591, nuclear engineering is the third most valuable college major. Plus, less than half (48%) of the nuclear engineers surveyed held higher degrees, meaning that many are earning lofty salaries without the additional cost burden of graduate education.
4. Health and medical preparatory programs
This is a category that includes students who plan to go on to medical graduate and professional programs, such as "pre-med" and "pre-pharmacy" students, and these undergraduate programs are designed to provide a base of knowledge in biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, and other topics. So, it certainly makes sense that 78% of students who completed one of these programs also holds an advanced degree. However, with a $130,308 average annual income (highest on the list), it appears the additional education could be well worth the cost.
5. Applied mathematics
Applied mathematics is a broad term that refers to the application of mathematical principles to industries such as engineering, manufacturing, communications, and others. Because applied mathematics requires not only math skills, but a component of specialized knowledge as well, it can be quite a lucrative field. The average applied mathematics graduate earns a well-above-average $105,679 salary and there's only a 2% unemployment rate among these degree recipients. Furthermore, just over half (51%) of applied mathematics graduates hold advanced degrees, so many earn high salaries without additional education.
The $16,728 Social Security bonus most retirees completely overlook If you're like most Americans, you're a few years (or more) behind on your retirement savings. But a handful of little-known "Social Security secrets" could help ensure a boost in your retirement income. For example: one easy trick could pay you as much as $16,728 more... each year! Once you learn how to maximize your Social Security benefits, we think you could retire confidently with the peace of mind we're all after. Simply click here to discover how to learn more about these strategies.
The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.