The Worst-Paying College Degrees

Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Yesterday, Yahoo Finance posted an article on the worst-paying college degrees in 2010 (see below). Among them are education ($35,100 starting; $54,900 mid-career), special education, child and family studies, and social work.

For those of you that follow the trends on return on investment from advanced degrees, the stable outcome of the past decade-plus is that only advanced degrees, such as law, medicine, and other professional levels, are beating inflation. BAs are holding steady, but anything else, including the now-vaulted associate degrees, are losing ground. The College Board and other organizations have touted the million-dollar difference a college degree makes on earned income over a lifetime. I’ve made that argument myself, with several caveats (including investment income, etc., which others don’t make). ButBloomberg Businessweek came out last month and said that the million-dollar hype is bogus. Their estimate is $400,000 over a lifetime in earnings, with great variety across schools. Only 17 institutions in the United States, for instance, has an ROI of $1.2M or more. You can check out the worth of your college or university degree at this website.

A real problem is that many students entering higher education end up in a lower-wage career, such as education and social work. While this is good because we need talented, educated people in these all-too-important-to-society positions, the net cost to the individual can be somewhat devastating.

Worst-Paying College Degrees in 2010

College Degree Starting Pay/Mid-Career Pay

1. Child and Family Studies $29,500 $38,400
2. Elementary Education $31,600 $44,400
3. Social Work $31,800 $44,900
4. Athletic Training $32,800 $45,700
5. Culinary Arts $35,900 $50,600
6. Horticulture $35,000 $50,800
7. Paralegal Studies/Law $35,100 $51,300
8. Theology $34,700 $51,300
9. Recreation & Leisure $33,300 $53,200
10. Special Education $36,000 $53,800
11. Dietetics $40,400 $54,200
12. Religious Studies $34,700 $54,400
13. Art $33,500 $54,800
14. Education $35,100 $54,900
15. Interdisciplinary Studies $35,600 $55,700
16. Interior Design $34,400 $56,600
17. Nutrition $42,200 $56,700
18. Graphic Design $35,400 $56,800
19. Music $36,700 $57,000

20. Art History $39,400 $57,100

With an tuition and fee cost of $7,020 at a US four-year institution and approximately $5,000* at a Canadian Institution ($19,388 and $13,000, respectively, for in-state/province with room and board), the total cost of education can be staggering. Assuming the latter, we are talking about $80,000 and $52,000 in total costs, before grant aid, for a four-year degree. True, some of those occupations noted in the table require an associate’s degree, but most are in four-year university territory.

What we have to come to terms with, and this would be a great study to conduct (and certainly doable with current data), is the trend in repayment of degrees by occupation (perhaps EPI will do this when the new Beginning Postsecondary Student Study comes out in a few weeks). That is, how long does it take, on average, to repay the cost of a degree by occupation. My assumption is that this is lengthening dramatically for all occupations, as the cost of an earned degree has exploded over the past two decades, but more importantly, has risen exponentially for those in lower-wage occupations.

All of this is occurring concurrently to the push for more higher education at more cost to both the consumer and the taxpayer. Every student who goes to public higher education has a public subsidy attached to their enrollment, and almost every student takes out a student loan of some type (and credit cards must also be considered a “loan”). Thus, there are real consequences for going to college, and the return on investment, yes, the much vaulted ROI, must be a real consideration for students as they look at their career goals and trajectory.

How much is too much? My friend Tom Mortenson has always said that the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going. That is not so true anymore, unfortunately. I think most of us still support the tenet that those with a college/university degree open doors of opportunity simply not afforded to others, let alone a fiscal ROI, but we cannot ignore that the increased cost of higher education and a weakening economy in key social areas is rapidly eroding the benefit of a degree.

Interested in your thoughts.

*Charges for 2010-11 at University of Manitoba, to use as an example.


About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at
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