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50 college majors that earn the least money

Monkey Business Images // Shutterstock

50 college majors that earn the least money

Many lucrative careers emerge from fields that may not have the highest starting salaries. While some college majors are associated with low earning potential, strategic networking and adapting skills to other industries can help bridge the gap in the early years of a career.

Plus, any major is better than no major—a bachelor’s degree in any field yields nearly $1.2 million more in a lifetime over no college education at all. Often, a degree is just the first step in a career that evolves and grows into unimaginable places. Regardless, choosing a major involves carefully balancing career interests with the prospects of the field and awareness of potential financial challenges.

Using PayScale’s 2021-22 College Salary ReportStacker researched the 50 college majors that earn the least money. This report surveyed 3.5 million college graduates and 82,735 bachelor’s degrees ranked by mid-career median salary, what a person earns after working in the field for over 10 years. These earnings include the base annual salary or hourly wage, bonuses, profit sharing, tips, commissions, overtime, and other forms of cash earnings. Ties are broken by early career salary levels.

Stock compensation was not included when considering the annual salary of each college major, but can be a significant portion of pay for specific executive and high-tech jobs. Further, a wage for the noted college major does not include the cash value of retirement benefits or the amount of other noncash benefits, including health care and other ancillary benefits. PayScale’s salaries do not directly reflect those of the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. For most of the majors, BLS data shows higher salaries, even though the level of education required is the same.

Viktor Gladkov // Shutterstock

#49. Ceramics (tie)

– Early-career pay: $42,200
– Mid-career pay: $58,300

Students looking to major in ceramics will learn about the science behind materials, plus sculpture and drawing skills. Courses in personal style development, wheel-throwing techniques, firing and kiln operation, oxidation, ceramic murals, mixed media, and slips and glazes are usually required to graduate. Many with a degree in ceramics become professional potters, teachers, artists, or sculptors.

Orhan Cam // Shutterstock

#49. Parks and recreation management (tie)

– Early-career pay: $42,700
– Mid-career pay: $58,300

Parks and recreation workers typically work for the government, which means they may see fewer pay raises than other workers. In August 2023, President Joe Biden authorized a 5.2% pay raise for federal workers, the largest since 1981.

Hotaik Sung // Shutterstock

#47. Pastoral ministry (tie)

– Early-career pay: $38,700
– Mid-career pay: $58,000

Pastoral ministers help people in spiritual distress and lead religious organizations and communities. But people don’t pay for spiritual counsel—other than donations or tithes—and therefore, there are no typical ways to drive up earnings.

DGLimages // Shutterstock

#47. Vocal performance (tie)

– Early-career pay: $42,600
– Mid-career pay: $58,000

While some vocal performance majors may go on to perform sold-out arenas, many end up working in less lucrative careers. These include positions at churches, such as worship pastors and directors of music ministry, which come with decidedly lower salaries.

Freedom Studio // Shutterstock

#45. Bible studies and theology (tie)

– Early-career pay: $40,000
– Mid-career pay: $57,500

All jobs depend on having clients, and this includes religious jobs. Bible studies and theology professionals face challenging headwinds in the United States in this respect. About 1 in 5 Americans, a record-high share, report themselves as having no formal religious identity.


#45. Art teacher education (tie)

– Early-career pay: $40,300
– Mid-career pay: $57,500

Art teacher education majors most often go on to help nurture the next generation of creative minds, often at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Those who pursue this course of study may also find career opportunities in museums or as textbook illustrators.


#44. Forensic accounting

– Early-career pay: $48,300
– Mid-career pay: $57,200

Forensic accountants are integral in solving crimes like insurance fraud or money laundering by carefully tracing and examining the flow of finances. Advanced degrees and CPA certification can increase employment opportunities for forensic accounting majors.

PhuShutter // Shutterstock

#42. Legal assistant studies (tie)

– Early-career pay: $38,100
– Mid-career pay: $57,100

Legal assistants may hope to become lawyers, who typically earn significantly higher salaries. However, without a law degree, legal assistants are only legally allowed to perform certain tasks, which caps the value of their services. // Shutterstock

#42. Communication sciences and disorders (tie)

– Early-career pay: $43,300
– Mid-career pay: $57,100

Communications sciences and disorders specialists address an array of issues that technology may be rendered less reliant on therapy. For example, cochlear implants are covered by most insurance plans, and while there are some ongoing costs for maintenance, they reduce the need for hearing therapy because the technology helps patients hear.

Olesia Bilkei // Shutterstock

#41. Special education

– Early-career pay: $41,300
– Mid-career pay: $57,000

There are several special education career paths to take after majoring in the subject, aside from teaching. The prospect of becoming a residential manager, preschool director, or direct support professional is why some choose the undergraduate major, and then get their master’s degree. Workers who assist disabled people are in high demand both because more students need help and because more teachers are leaving the profession.


#40. Conservation biology

– Early-career pay: $42,800
– Mid-career pay: $56,900

Conservation biologists play a critical role in preserving species and ecosystems. Many important roles in the field are with government agencies or nonprofit organizations, meaning they may not have great earning potential, despite the hard work, which often involves long hours and physical labor. // Shutterstock

#39. Family studies

– Early-career pay: $39,200
– Mid-career pay: $56,800

Family studies professionals help tutor, develop, and supervise children. Some competition they face in commanding high salaries? Teenage babysitters, whom parents may feel more comfortable paying lower wages.

pixelheadphoto digitalskillet // Shutterstock

#37. Christian ministry (tie)

– Early-career pay: $38,100
– Mid-career pay: $56,400

Christianity has been on the decline in the United States for years. This means fewer Americans are attending church or giving to their churches, which means fewer resources to support the salaries of Christian ministry workers.

Africa Studio // Shutterstock

#37. Speech and hearing (tie)

– Early-career pay: $43,300
– Mid-career pay: $56,400

Speech and hearing professionals’ salaries suffer from improved technology. Hearing aids have become increasingly sophisticated, reducing the need for administrative assistance after purchase.

Monkey Business Images // Shutterstock

#36. Health and human services

– Early-career pay: $43,500
– Mid-career pay: $56,300

Health and human services encompass a vast array of jobs. On the higher end of the pay scale, these include jobs such as public health directors. But many other jobs in health and human services typically have lower pay rates, such as social workers and correctional officers.


#35. Musical theatre

A woman performer singing on stage.

– Early-career pay: $43,500
– Mid-career pay: $56,100

Musical theatre’s mix of acting, music, and dance attracts people with multiple talents. Careers in film, television, and stage performance are highly sought after and limited, however, meaning many graduates go on to work as teachers or in non-performance production roles. Still, the discipline is gaining popularity, with 6% more degrees awarded in 2021 than in 2020.


#34. History teacher education

– Early-career pay: $47,700
– Mid-career pay: $55,600

Majoring in history teacher education likely means most graduates will teach the subject in elementary, secondary, or postsecondary schools. Being a history teacher, like other instruction degrees, typically requires those who major in the subject to become state-certified after student teaching. History teachers may work with special education teachers to make learning more accessible for students with learning difficulties and can work with debate teams, for example, because of their knowledge of current events. // Shutterstock

#33. Developmental psychology

– Early-career pay: $38,200
– Mid-career pay: $55,000

Developmental psychologists study how people change throughout their lifetime from various perspectives, including biologically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively. Advanced degrees, licensure, internships, and certifications can mean the accrual of significant debt before a person can even begin working and practicing in the field.

XArtProduction // Shutterstock

#32. Therapeutic recreation

– Early-career pay: $39,500
– Mid-career pay: $54,900

Therapeutic recreation specialists work with patients to improve the minds, bodies, and spirits of those with diseases or disabilities. This demographic may be less likely to have resources to pay therapists significant sums, which may play a role in driving down salaries.

Monkey Business Images // Shutterstock

#29. Social work (tie)

– Early-career pay: $38,600
– Mid-career pay: $54,600

Although social work jobs may not have the highest starting salaries, job prospects for social workers are actually quite positive. As health care spending continues to increase, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that social work jobs will continue to enjoy a rise in demand for workers.


#29. Applied behavioral science (tie)

– Early-career pay: $40,500
– Mid-career pay: $54,600

Applied behavioral science is essentially the study of why people behave in certain ways. If it sounds broad, that’s because it is. Graduates often pursue career opportunities in the fields of human resources, human services, and consumer science, among others.

fizkes // Shutterstock

#29. Community and human services (tie)

– Early-career pay: $42,400
– Mid-career pay: $54,600

Community and human services workers endeavor to improve the lives of their communities and the individuals who work in them. And even though salaries are not as high as those from other majors, the BLS has noted that job growth in this field is projected to remain high in the next decade.

Gaudilab // Shutterstock

#28. Office administration

– Early-career pay: $38,700
– Mid-career pay: $54,500

Graduating with a major in office administration opens doors to many career paths, including medical office manager, staff specialist, executive assistant, management secretary, and purchasing consultant. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics details other career opportunities that do not require a degree but have comparable and higher annual salaries for those who major in the field. Among those occupations are police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, who make $46,900 annually, and administrative assistants, who annually make $44,080.


#26. Ministry (tie)

– Early-career pay: $36,700
– Mid-career pay: $54,300

Ministry graduates prepare to be clergy members at religious organizations and institutions. Some students may pursue seminary school upon completion of a ministry degree or may pursue a specialization like working with youth. But church attendance is falling as the number of Americans with no religious affiliation continues to rise.

DGLimages // Shutterstock

#26. Family and community services (tie)

– Early-career pay: $42,200
– Mid-career pay: $54,300

Family and community services careers often involve helping people with little capital or power, including the impoverished and disabled citizens accessing social services. Because these services are offered free of charge, there is a limited capital base with which to reward workers.

BRAIN2HANDS // Shutterstock

#25. Youth ministry

– Early-career pay: $37,400
– Mid-career pay: $54,200

Youth ministers work with children and teens to coordinate related activities at a church or religious organization. Churches typically operate as nonprofits, and therefore the salaries of their workers, including youth ministers, cannot respond to the wider market and offer higher salaries.

wavebreakmedia // Shutterstock

#24. Elementary education

– Early-career pay: $40,000
– Mid-career pay: $53,800

Majoring in elementary education means teaching and instructing young students. Majors in the program must choose a specific subject to study, such as math, history, science, or English. Some who major in the subject consider careers as guidance counselors, juvenile correction officers, long-term substitute teachers, online instructors, preschool teachers, or adjunct professors.

Igor Bulgarin // Shutterstock

#23. Voice and opera

– Early-career pay: $34,500
– Mid-career pay: $53,300

Voice and opera students preparing to perform professionally after graduation must learn theatrical techniques and stage repertory through courses such as diction, foreign languages, music theory, and humanities. While receiving private instruction during the undergraduate curriculum, students also perform in choral ensembles. Students who choose not to sing opera after studying the major can easily transition into other careers, including teaching art, drama, music, or becoming a musical director or composer.


#21. Christian education (tie)

A brown briefcase with a black holy bible sitting on top of it.

– Early-career pay: $38,700
– Mid-career pay: $53,200

A degree in Christian education prepares students to work in ministry and service in practicing and spreading the Christian worldview. Graduates often go on to work in churches, religious organizations, or other educational settings. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 58% of those who major in philosophy or religious disciplines go on to earn their master’s degrees.


#21. Conflict resolution (tie)

– Early-career pay: $44,400
– Mid-career pay: $53,200

Whether on an international scale or between two individuals, where there is conflict, there is a need for conflict resolution. Conflict resolution specialists and mediators often require advanced degrees and many years of experience to be established in the field.

hryshai olena // Shutterstock

#19. Baking and pastry arts (tie)

– Early-career pay: $37,500
– Mid-career pay: $53,000

These days, it seems everyone is a food blogger. This means that more people than ever are likely to be trying their hands at baking and pastry-making at home, reducing the need for specialized bakers.

fizkes // Shutterstock

#19. Human services management (tie)

– Early-career pay: $45,600
– Mid-career pay: $53,000

Human services management jobs are a specific role for those interested in helping or managing others in social work or related fields. Although the average salary is not extremely high, these positions pay more than nonsupervisory roles in the same field. Some of these roles require additional licensing.


#18. Hospitality and culinary arts

– Early-career pay: $38,800
– Mid-career pay: $52,900

Some career choices for holders of a hospitality and culinary arts degree include restaurant manager, food service director, chef, caterer, and food safety specialist, among others. But the hospitality industry, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is notoriously understaffed, underpaid, and undervalued.

YP_Studio // Shutterstock

#17. Human services

– Early-career pay: $38,700
– Mid-career pay: $52,500

Although careers in human services vary widely, their common denominator is that they help people who are likely unable to help themselves. As such, these jobs, which include family court advocates and crisis support workers, serve a population with limited resources that may be unable to compensate them highly.

fizkes // Shutterstock

#16. Counseling

– Early-career pay: $39,900
– Mid-career pay: $51,700

Counselors are in high demand, but many of the people who need their help aren’t able to pay well, and dealing with insurance companies for reimbursement is challenging at best.

belushi // Shutterstock

#15. Recreational therapy

– Early-career pay: $38,400
– Mid-career pay: $51,600

Recreational therapists help many Americans, especially older adults, deal with disabilities, injuries, and illnesses—typically via arts and crafts, aquatics, games, and other activities. Although the pay is not high, these professions are projected to increase in demand as an aging generation of Americans looks to the future.

New Africa // Shutterstock

#14. Child development

– Early-career pay: $37,400
– Mid-career pay: $51,400

Childcare workers have an average hourly wage of just $13.71. Some advocacy groups and politicians have advocated paying these workers more to meet growing demands for a $15 minimum child care wage.

VH-studio // Shutterstock

#13. Educational psychology

– Early-career pay: $36,900
– Mid-career pay: $51,200

Educational psychologists study how people learn, which can inform various teaching methods, classroom strategies, and ideally, improve academic outcomes. But as many schools struggle with shrinking budgets, professionals in this field are either unaffordable or underpaid and are often expected to work beyond a reasonable capacity.

SpeedKingz // Shutterstock

#12. Middle school education

– Early-career pay: $41,200
– Mid-career pay: $50,800

After majoring in middle school education, graduates teach students in grades five through nine. Preparing to teach that specific age group entails taking undergraduate courses in various subjects, including English, science, mathematics, and social studies.


#11. Mental health counseling

– Early-career pay: $36,100
– Mid-career pay: $50,000

Becoming a licensed mental health counselor requires time, study, and practice—years of it. Professionals can focus on working with specific populations, like children, military veterans, or people with addiction. And there is no shortage of need for these services. More than 156 million people in the U.S. live in areas with documented mental health care professional shortages.

Iam_Anupong // Shutterstock

#10. Early childhood and elementary education

– Early-career pay: $38,000
– Mid-career pay: $48,400

Students who major in early childhood and elementary education prepare to teach in both preschool and after-school programs, as well as kindergarten through sixth grade. Graduates must usually become certified to instruct students in whatever state they choose for work. With further schooling, some graduates of the major go on to become administrators, such as principals, superintendents, directors of curriculum, and college deans.


#9. Equine studies

– Early-career pay: $35,700
– Mid-career pay: $47,100

An equine studies major prepares you for just about any career pertaining to horse training, breeding, or showing. While the equine world is often equated with wealth, workers in this field are among the lowest paid on this list. For those working with horses competing in major races and events, the purse earnings divided among winning team members can be very lucrative. // Shutterstock

#8. Addiction studies

– Early-career pay: $38,000
– Mid-career pay: $47,000

Addiction studies majors can typically expect to work as addiction counselors or drug or alcohol treatment specialists. There is a large pay range for those who work in the field, with salaries dependent largely on the level of education attained, geographic location, and the type of setting in which treatment is performed.

MiniStocker // Shutterstock

#7. Child and family studies

– Early-career pay: $36,400
– Mid-career pay: $46,500

Childcare is one of the lowest-paying professions in the United States. One reason may be that many teenagers and other younger adults will work as babysitters and tutors to make side money, which makes it more difficult for professionals to demand higher wages.

Natee K Jindakum // Shutterstock

#6. Rehabilitation counseling

– Early-career pay: $39,200
– Mid-career pay: $46,400

Rehabilitation counselors typically work to serve people living with disabilities. These services can range from mental health to physical health to practical life-skills training and can be performed everywhere, from detention centers to unemployment offices. Recipients typically do not pay for such services, and as such, the salaries of rehabilitation counselors are limited by the budgets of the government or nonprofit agencies that employ them. // Shutterstock

#5. Outdoor education

– Early-career pay: $37,400
– Mid-career pay: $46,300

Outdoor education professionals help people enjoy the great outdoors. However perfect they may be for the outdoors enthusiast, some of these jobs are run by the government, which means they are capped within a certain pay bracket.

Monkey Business Images // Shutterstock

#4. Early childhood education

– Early-career pay: $36,100
– Mid-career pay: $45,400

A child’s cognitive, emotional, and language development occurs in the first five years of life, making early childhood education critical in an adolescent’s academic career. However, it is one of the lowest-paying majors on the list, indicating that those who enter the field are likely more concerned about the community than salary.

fizkes // Shutterstock

#3. Mental health

– Early-career pay: $36,900
– Mid-career pay: $45,000

Mental health is a field that encompasses many different settings. Some mental health specialists may work in assisted living facilities, helping residents with dementia, while others may work with working professionals stressed and depressed about their jobs. Those working in private practice theoretically have no salary caps, while those working in institutions may be more constrained by salary caps.

Stock-Asso // Shutterstock

#2. Medical assisting

– Early-career pay: $36,000
– Mid-career pay: $44,800

Medical assisting wages may be low partly because it’s a job that requires fewer qualifications than other health care jobs and because of high turnover.

Martinez Studio // Shutterstock

#1. Metalsmithing

– Early-career pay: $40,000
– Mid-career pay: $40,300

Many workers with degrees in metalsmithing find work as jewelers. Those working in the retail trade tend to make the most, but it’s still not very much.

Additional writing by Colleen Kilday. Story editing by Jeff Inglis. Copy editing by Robert Wickwire. Photo selection by Ania Antecka.

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