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In Which Majors Do Students Go Furthest Into Debt, and Is it Worth it?

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Content was accurate at the time of publication.

Going to college undoubtedly increases a student’s earning prospects. Those who obtain a degree make an average of 71% more money than peers who halted their education after high school, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Going into student loan debt, however, is a heavier price to pay for some majors than it is for others.

To determine which courses of study have the most financial value, we tagged each with an “earnings-to-debt.” This was done by dividing the average student loan disbursement for 64 majors by their closest-matching job’s early career wage. Here are the results:

Key findings

  • The 14 majors with the highest earnings-to-debt ratio could all be connected to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Physical sciences, computer engineering, general engineering, chemical engineering and computer science rounded out the top five.
  • The majors with the lowest earnings-to-debt ratio included law, pharmacy and education, in part because of the postgraduate degrees that these fields often require. Plus, the early career wage in these occupations was measured as middling at best.
  • Other majors’ ratios were also dragged down by their low ranking for early career income. Graduates who majored in social service ($31,300 per year) and fine arts ($33,500), for example, are often paid low salaries fresh out of school, despite their student loan balances. Some entering these lesser-paid fields also find themselves underemployed — that is, employed in jobs that do not traditionally require a college degree.

Being a STEM major pays off the most — and the fastest

If you’re naturally drawn to STEM, here’s some good (obvious) news: Your student loan debt is more worthwhile than it is for many of your classmates. That’s particularly true for engineering majors, who took 9 of the top 12 spots in our rankings, depending on their specific field of expertise.

A relatively lower student loan balance and higher entry-level salary paved the way. Our nine top-ranking engineering majors borrowed $8,544 on average in 2017 (compared with $10,120 among all majors) and were slated to earn $62,111 after graduating (compared with $42,842).

The cherry on top for engineers is that their average annual salary should climb even higher as they advance in their careers. For instance, chemical engineers start out making around $68,000 a year, but they’ll likely rake in about six figures by the middle of their career, according to New York Federal Reserve data.

With that said, physical sciences led the way among majors, with the highest return on investment. Whether for chemists, geoscientists, physicists or related professionals, the major made up for its mediocre early career wage ($46,000) with our study’s lowest average student loan disbursement in 2017 ($5,290).

Debt outpaces earnings for some majors that require a second degree

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist — or STEM major — to figure out that making a bigger salary sometimes requires a second (or specialized) degree. When you add student loan debt to the equation, however, the value of these grad-school-oriented majors could decrease.

Consider the fields of law and pharmacy, which finished at the bottom in our study. Students in these majors borrowed, on average, four times more than their peers in 2017 — nearly $40,000, compared to just over $10,000 for all majors, according to Department of Education data.

To make matters worse, law and pharmacy students earn relatively low early career salaries (about $40,000 each), falling below the average ($42,842) for all the 64 career paths we looked at.

These professions’ savings grace, however, could be their projected mid-career salaries. Pharmacy degree holders, for example, should see their earnings multiply by threefold, to about $115,000, according to the New York Fed data.

Other majors that fell in the bottom 10 of our earnings-to-debt rankings, however, might never see that uptick in wages. For instance, education majors, which finished third-to-last on our list, would see their initial income ($36,000) climb only slightly after hitting the midpoint of their career ($45,000).

A silver lining of majors that pay off the least, however, is that they could lead to more opportunities for student loan forgiveness. Teachers, for example, have access to Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Teacher Loan Forgiveness via the Federal Student Aid office, plus state-run repayment assistance programs.

The best major for your career — and student loan repayment

Selecting a major purely for its salary prospects isn’t wise. However, choosing one without weighing the cost wouldn’t be too smart either.

If you’re currently in college or are about to enroll, you might make our earnings-to-debt ratio at least a part of your decision-making process. Considering your access to gift aid like scholarships and grants can also sway your ratio in the right direction. Then you could lessen your reliance on federal and private student loans.

If you’re worried about having picked the wrong major, consider that 30% of college students switch to another within three years of enrolling, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Plus, there are strategies for changing course without taking on more debt.

For graduates who might have regrets about how their earnings-to-debt ratio are playing out in reality, you can only stew about it for so long. Move on to practical loan-management strategies, possibly including income-driven repayment, forgiveness programs, and — if you don’t need federal loan protections — student loan refinancing, which can potentially lower your interest costs or ease your monthly payments.


To create our rankings, we divided each major’s average student loan disbursements in 2017 (as reported by the New York Federal Reserve) by the closest-matching job’s median early career wage (as reported by the Department of Education). The result was the earnings-to-debt ratio, as listed above, with a higher ratio making for a better payoff.

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