15 Top College Degrees for Return on Investment

Looking for a job in a growing industry that also pays well? These undergraduate degrees can help!
best college majors

There's no denying it: A college degree can help you get a job that pays well. Still, to get to those good jobs, students have to shell out thousands. For the 2016-2017 school year, undergraduate costs for full-time students hit these numbers:

  • Public four-year colleges and universities (in-state): $9,650, up 2.4% from the previous school year
  • Public four-year colleges and universities (out-of-state): $24,930, up 3.6% from the previous school year
  • Private four-year colleges and universities: $33,480, up 3.6% from the previous school year

When you're spending that much money, you want to be sure you're getting a good return on your investment. That means taking the time to consider which jobs are in demand and the degrees that'll help you get them.

Let's look at the 15 college degrees that are most likely to pay off in the long run.

It's All About Education

Most of the country's top-paying jobs require either additional schooling or experience that puts them out of reach for a recent graduate with a bachelor's degree. According to job site Glassdoor, the five best-paying jobs in America are physician, pharmacy manager, patent attorney, medical science liaison, and pharmacist.

When you're career shopping, consider how much education you need, whether jobs will be available, and how the job pays.

Unfortunately, these roles all require more than just a bachelor's degree, which means more expenses. The $187,876 median salary for physicians sounds great, but to get there a student needs to pay for four years of medical school, and survive three or more years of residency and fellowship. Those seven extra years of schooling can easily tack an extra zero onto the end of your education expenses — which isn't what you want if you need to support yourself (and pay off student loans).

So when you're career shopping, consider these factors:

  • How much education do you need? Here, we're going to focus on careers that only require a four-year undergraduate degree.
  • Will jobs be available? You want to look for an industry that's growing, so workers will be in high demand when you graduate. That'll help you find a job right out of college and start earning quickly.
  • How does the job pay? Even if jobs are plentiful, you don't want to aim for an industry with low wages.

Look Where the Jobs Are

According to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the health care industry is growing fast. For the decade of 2014 to 2024, BLS estimates say four of the five fastest-growing jobs (occupational therapy assistant, physical therapist assistant, physical therapist aide, and home health aide) are in health care. While that means it would be easy to get one of these jobs, the best-paying jobs in health care require additional education — putting them beyond our desired four-year education budget.

SEE ALSO: Yes, You CAN Shop Around and Haggle for Medical Procedures

However, you still have plenty of options for entry-level employment that pay well and should be in high demand. Some of these positions don't even require a traditional four-year bachelor's degree program, and instead look for a two-year associate degree, a two-year specialty training program, or both. Many health care roles will also require certification.

15 Fast-Growing Jobs

Here are 15 jobs that are expected to see serious growth by 2024 and offer a good median annual salary — all without requiring advanced education.

  • Wind turbine service technician ($52,260 per year), up 108%
  • Occupational therapy assistant ($59,010 per year), up 42.7%
  • Physical therapist assistant ($56,610 per year), up 40.6%
  • Operations research analyst ($79,200 per year), up 30.2%
  • Personal financial advisor ($90,530 per year), up 29.6%
  • Cartographer and photogrammetrist ($62,750 per year), up 29.3%
  • Interpreter and translator ($46,120 per year), up 28.7%
  • Hearing aid specialist ($50,250 per year), up 27.2%
  • Forensic science technician ($56,750 per year), up 26.6%
  • Web developer ($66,130 per year), up 26.6%
  • Diagnostic medical sonographer ($69,650 per year), up 26.4%
  • Computer systems analyst ($87,220 per year), up 20.9%
  • Software developer, applications ($100,080 per year), up 18.8%
  • Market research analyst and marketing specialist ($62,560 per year), up 18.6%
  • Electrician ($52,720 per year), up 13.7%

Bear in mind that job requirements can vary. While most of these occupations will only require four years of schooling (or less), some employers may want more.

Wind turbine service technician is the fastest growing occupation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Best Degrees for Return on Investment

As you might notice from the list above, the degrees that get you the best bang for your buck are quite varied — and you can get into some jobs with a variety of degree programs. Here are the educational paths that can lead you to the jobs above.

Two-Year Associate Degrees

Electrical engineering for electrician (though four-year apprenticeship programs may also suffice). This can also qualify you for a number of positions in technical fields, such as a telecommunications equipment installer.

Hearing instrument specialist for hearing aid specialist. There are some bachelor's programs, too.

Occupational therapy assistant for occupational therapy assistant, obviously.

Physical therapy assistant for physical therapist assistant.

Ultrasound or diagnostic medical sonography for diagnostic medical sonographer.

Wind energy technology for wind turbine service technician.

SEE ALSO: 9 Essential Tips to Save on Higher Education

Four-Year Bachelor's Degrees

Accounting for financial advisor. This can also qualify you for a number of accounting jobs, though entry-level positions do not always pay well.

Biology for forensic science technician. This can also qualify you for several positions in health care or the sciences, though the best-paying health care jobs often require specialty training.

Business for work as a financial advisor. This can also qualify you for a wide range of business positions, like management analyst (which pays a median salary of $81,330 per year).

Chemistry for forensic science technician. This can also qualify you for a number of science jobs, like chemist and lab technician.

Computer science for computer systems analyst, operations research analyst, software developer, or web developer.

Foreign language for translator. Note that not all jobs will require a degree, as long as you're fluent.

Mathematics for operations research analyst or market research analyst. This can also qualify you for a wide range of positions in everything from economics to computer science.

Physical science for cartographer. However more specialist degrees are also available.

Statistics for market research analyst. This can also qualify you for a range of positions for analysts and statisticians across a variety of industries.

Readers, what other degrees do you think provide a great return on investment? If you have one of these degrees, do you think it's given you a good bang for your buck? Let us know in the comments below!

Elizabeth Harper
Contributing Writer

Originally working in IT, Elizabeth now writes on tech, gaming, and general consumer issues. Her articles have appeared in USA Today, Time, AOL, PriceGrabber, and more. She has been one of DealNews' most regular contributors since 2013, researching everything from vacuums to renters insurance to help consumers.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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Do some proper research and marry into money.
Tony Balogna
I read the SUNY Maritime had the highest average graduate pay
surprised to see personal financial advisor projected as having high growth. robo-investing is growing by leaps and bounds as well as index fund/etf investing.

also, after fda relaxed rules for hearing aids recently, psap devices, not requiring an audiologist, are gaining in popularity. so, it's not clear if hearing aid specialists jobs will continue the same growth for too long.
Nothing pays like front-office finance. Nothing comes close.
the trades pay more...... welder, machinist....