Higher pay leads to surge in STEM graduates. Science, tech majors are ‘the most lucrative,’ says expert

Personal finance

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Your earnings potential largely depends on your choice of major in college, many studies show.

And when it comes to the highest-paying bachelor’s degrees, engineering and other STEM-related fields of study continue to dominate. (STEM is shorthand for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”)

Students are taking note, according to Eric Greenberg, president of Greenberg Educational Group, a New York-based consulting firm.

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“Today a lot of people will pick a niche program because there are more opportunities there,” Greenberg said. “The STEM majors tend to be the most lucrative and that’s bringing people in.”

Highest-paying majors are mostly STEM

Payscale’s recent college salary report found that petroleum engineering is currently the highest-paying major overall. Graduates in the field earn nearly six figures just starting out and more than $200,000 with 10 or more years of experience.

After petroleum engineering, operations research and industrial engineering majors are the next highest paid, followed by interaction design, applied economics and management, and building science. 

Technology jobs also claimed most spots in the Top 10 list of highest-paying jobs currently available, according to a separate report by job search site Ladders.

“Even though tech hiring has slowed, there’s still demand for software engineers and project managers. I suspect the rise of AI is a big factor here,” Ladders founder Marc Cenedella said.

Down the road, students who pursue a degree specifically in computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering or economics — still mostly STEM disciplines — earn the most overall, according to another recent analysis of bachelor’s degrees and median earnings by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Higher pay has led to a surge in STEM graduates

“Up until 10 years ago, the focus was almost entirely on the umbrella name of the institution — now people are looking closer at pre-professional programs from a financial point of view,” Greenberg said.

“The acceleration of college tuition prices is making people look much more closely at the value,” he said.

People are looking closer at pre-professional programs from a financial point of view.
Eric Greenberg
president of Greenberg Educational Group

In the last decade, college got a lot more expensive. Tuition and fees at four-year private colleges jumped roughly 36%, according to the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid.

Over that same time, there has been a surge in the number of STEM graduates from U.S. colleges and universities at all degree levels, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of federal employment and education data.

Going forward, that’s likely to continue, the research shows. The growth in STEM jobs is expected to outpace that of non-STEM jobs in the coming years, Pew also found. 

‘You don’t always need a degree’

However, in some STEM-related fields, “you don’t always need a degree,” according to John Mullinix, chief growth officer at Ladders.

A growing number of companies, including many in tech, are dropping degree requirements for middle-skill and even higher-skill roles.

Between bootcamps, specialized programs and online certifications, there are more options available at a lower cost, according to Mullinix. 

“There’s a huge opportunity there,” he said.

Still, occupations as a whole are steadily requiring more education, according to a separate report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

And the fastest-growing industries, such as computer and data processing, still require workers with disproportionately high education levels compared with industries that have not grown as quickly.

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