50 college majors that earn the least money

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September 3, 2020
Viktor Gladkov // Shutterstock

50 college majors that earn the least money

Career choices are often based on personal interests, experience, and potential income—and more and more, they require at least a college degree. What undergraduates choose to major in during college can be a strong indicator of what an individual's financial future looks like—and it’s not always rosy news.

Stacker researched the 50 college majors that earn the least money, using PayScale's 2020 College Salary Report. This new report, released in 2021, surveyed 3.5 million college graduates and 835 bachelor degrees ranked by mid-career median salary, or the fitted salary one makes after working in the field for over 10 years. By definition, a fitted salary combines the base annual salary or hourly wage, bonuses, profit sharing, tips, commissions, overtime, and other forms of cash earnings.

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 non-cash benefits, including health care and other ancillary benefits. PayScale's salaries do not directly reflect those of the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). For most of the majors, BLS salaries are higher, even though the level of education required is the same.

Additionally, several low-paying teaching majors on the list confirm the plight of educators who graduate but can't make ends meet on a minimum salary. Between rising student debt and inflation, it is likely many who majored in the noted subjects have second jobs to pay the bills.

Read on to find out the 50 college majors that earn the least money.

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#49. Rehabilitation Services (tie)

- Early career pay: $34,100
- Mid-career pay: $55,700

Rehabilitation services salaries may be low, but part of these numbers include very low average pay for rehabilitation aides. These workers make an average of just $10 an hour, which is much lower than the higher end of the spectrum for the profession—occupational therapists, who top out at approximately $46 an hour.

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#49. Biblical Studies & Practical Ministries (tie)

- Early career pay: $35,100
- Mid-career pay: $55,700

While senior pastors can expect to earn more than those just starting out, some in the biblical studies and practical ministries professions are impacted by the type of church they work for. Many religious organizations are nonprofits and face intrinsic caps on how much they are likely to earn, limiting the amount they can pay their staff, and to make sure they do not run afoul of U.S. laws prohibiting “excessive” salaries at nonprofits.

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#47. Pastoral Ministry (tie)

- Early career pay: $37,300
- Mid-career pay: $55,600

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

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#47. Parks & Recreation Management (tie)

- Early career pay: $40,600
- Mid-career pay: $55,600

Parks and recreation workers typically work for the government, which means they may see fewer pay raises than other workers. Some government workers just received their first pay raise in over a decade in 2019.

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#46. Legal Assistant Studies

- Early career pay: $36,400
- Mid-career pay: $55,500

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.

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#45. Applied Management

- Early career pay: $43,600
- Mid-career pay: $55,400

Applied management workers evaluate the success of different business practices and work to implement better and more efficient modes of decision-making and operations. While some who work in this profession may assist corporations like banks or tech firms, others may assist nonprofits or companies in industries that tend to pay less.

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#42. Vocal Performance (tie)

- Early career pay: $38,900
- Mid-career pay: $55,300

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

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#42. Tourism & Travel (tie)

- Early career pay: $40,600
- Mid-career pay: $55,300

California State University touts high figures when promoting its travel and tourism major, including that one in every nine U.S. jobs depends on the industry, and that travel and tourism support over 8 million jobs nationwide. According to the school, some in management positions have the potential to earn more than $100,000 annually, including those working as a convention and visitors bureau director or a wedding planner. But typical pay is closer to half that figure.

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#42. Social Welfare (tie)

- Early career pay: $44,900
- Mid-career pay: $55,300

Social welfare salaries are low in part because of the needy populations they serve. Professionals in this field experience limited opportunities to earn higher salaries.

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#40. Audio Production (tie)

- Early career pay: $43,700
- Mid-career pay: $54,700

While some high-flying audio producers may rake in significant amounts of money overseeing the creation of records, such a career is dependent on people actually making music, movies, and other entertainment. When surprise events like COVIC-19 impact production, the earnings of an audio producer are similarly affected.

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#40. Bible Studies & Theology (tie)

- Early career pay: $38,100
- Mid-career pay: $54,700

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. Fewer Americans than ever report themselves as religious.

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#39. Church Ministries

- Early career pay: $38,100
- Mid-career pay: $54,600

Careers in church ministry are diverse, ranging from pastorships to technician jobs, overseeing the production of services. But the common denominator influencing pay is that joining a church is free, which limits the financial base of each church to pay its workers high salaries.

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#37. Special Education (tie)

- Early career pay: $39,200
- Mid-career pay: $54,500

There are several special education career paths to take after majoring in the subject, aside from teaching. Prospects of becoming a residential manager, preschool director, or direct support professional is why some choose the undergraduate major, then get their master's degree. Working with the disabled is in high demand, due to teachers retiring and more students needing help.

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#37. Family Studies (tie)

- Early career pay: $35,900
- Mid-career pay: $54,500

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.

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#34. Family & Community Services (tie)

- Early career pay: $38,500
- Mid-career pay: $54,400

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.

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#34. Communication Sciences & Disorders (tie)

- Early career pay: $40,900
- Mid-career pay: $54,400

Communications sciences and disorders specialists address an array of issues that technology may be rendering less reliant on therapy. For example, cochlear implants for deaf children and babies can now be purchased for as low as $530 with insurance, reducing the need for hearing therapy, as a greater number of patients can hear via the technology.

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#34. Ceramics (tie)

- Early career pay: $39,900
- Mid-career pay: $54,400

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.

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#33. Speech & Hearing

- Early career pay: $41,400
- Mid-career pay: $54,300

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

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#32. Community Development

- Early career pay: $42,100
- Mid-career pay: $53,900

Community development workers perform a wide array of tasks, from zoning and building inspections to budgets. However, they are typically paid by the government, so their salaries are capped within a certain range.

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#31. Health and Human Services

- Early career pay: $41,500
- Mid-career pay: $53,700

Health and human services encompasses 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 included in health and human services typically have lower pay rates, such as social workers and correctional treatment specialists.

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#30. Office Management

- Early career pay: $37,800
- Mid-career pay: $53,400

Manager may sound like a high-ranking title, but an office manager’s responsibilities are inherently clerical. This means they oversee other administrative activities in an office, and even when supervising, act in an assistant capacity to the executives and other workers in an office.

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#28. Psychology & Human Services (tie)

- Early career pay: $35,000
- Mid-career pay: $53,300

While some therapists and life coaches might charge high prices for deep-pocketed clients who can pay out of pocket, many who work in psychology and human services have salaries constrained by the settings in which they work. Those who work in community rehabilitation centers, for example, make an average of just $30,350 a year, compared to over $75,000 a year for those who work for the government.

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#28. History Teacher Education (tie)

- Early career pay: $45,400
- Mid-career pay: $53,000

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, 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.

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#26. Therapeutic Recreation (tie)

- Early career pay: $37,700
- Mid-career pay: $52,300

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

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#26. Youth Ministry (tie)

- Early career pay: $35,300
- Mid-career pay: $52,300

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, lack the ability to respond to the market and offer higher salaries.

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#25. Community & Human Services

- Early career pay: $40,500
- Mid-career pay: $52,100

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.

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#24. Christian Ministry

- Early career pay: $35,500
- Mid-career pay: $52,000

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

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#22. Social Work (SW) (tie)

- Early career pay: $36,600
- Mid-career pay: $51,600

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

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#22. Elementary Education (tie)

- Early career pay: $37,700
- Mid-career pay: $51,600

Majoring in elementary education means teaching and instructing young students. Majors in the program must choose a specific subject to study, including either 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.

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#21. Office Administration

- Early career pay: $38,200
- Mid-career pay: $51,200

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 subject. Among those occupations are police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, who make $40,660, and administrative assistants, who make $38,880.

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#20. Voice & Opera

- Early career pay: $32,900
- Mid-career pay: $50,800

Voice and opera students preparing to perform on a professional level after graduation must learn theatrical techniques and stage repertory through courses including 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, or music, or becoming a musical director or composer.

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#19. Human Services (HS) (tie)

- Early career pay: $36,600
- Mid-career pay: $50,700

Although careers in human services vary widely, their common denominator is that they help people who would likely be unable to help themselves. As such, these jobs, which range from family court advocates to crisis support workers, serve overall a population with limited resources who may not be able to compensate them highly.

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#18. Elementary Teaching (tie)

- Early career pay: $34,400
- Mid-career pay: $50,700

Elementary teaching majors will teach kindergarten through eighth grade. Courses in classroom management and curriculum and instruction help prepare future graduates to teach. A core group of classes, including English, mathematics, history, social studies, foreign languages, and science are required for all elementary teaching majors, who must become certified in the state they work in.

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#17. Baking & Pastry Arts

- Early career pay: $36,000
- Mid-career pay: $50,600

These days, it seems that everyone is a food blogger. And 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.

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#16. Human Services Management

- Early career pay: $43,500
- Mid-career pay: $50,500

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 non-supervisory roles in the same field. Many of these roles require additional licensing.

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#15. Counseling

- Early career pay: $37,100
- Mid-career pay: $49,300

Similar to therapists, those who specialize in counseling suffer in part from competition. Wages are lower than they might otherwise be because of the sheer number of people offering counseling services.

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#14. Recreational Therapy

- Early career pay: $36,400
- Mid-career pay: $49,200

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.

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#13. Child Development

- Early career pay: $35,500
- Mid-career pay: $49,100

Child care workers have an average hourly wage of just $10.31 an hour. Some advocacy groups and politicians have advocated paying a higher wage to these groups to meet growing demands for a $15 minimum wage these groups are demanding.

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#12. Middle School Education

- Early career pay: $39,000
- Mid-career pay: $48,300

After majoring in middle school education, graduates go on to teach students in grades 5 through 9. Teaching that specific age group entails taking undergraduate courses in a breadth of subjects, including English, science, mathematics, and social studies. Washington University in St. Louis suggests those majoring in middle school education may consider adding a concentrated study in their curriculum, since middle schools are interdisciplinary and teachers who have expertise in more than one content field may have an advantage in the job market.

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#11. Educational Psychology

- Early career pay: $34,600
- Mid-career pay: $47,600

Educational psychologists typically work with schools to support the education and development of children. While some may be employed by private schools that draw from a significant tuition and donor base to pad staff salaries, others may work for public schools, which typically have more limited resources to draw upon.

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#10. Early Childhood & Elementary Education

- Early career pay: $36,200
- Mid-career pay: $46,500

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 become certified to instruct students in whatever state they choose for work. With further schooling, some graduates of the major go onto to become administrators, such as principals, superintendents, directors of curriculum, and college deans.

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#9. Rehabilitation Counseling

- Early career pay: $38,000
- Mid-career pay: $46,100

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.

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#8. Addiction Studies

- Early career pay: $36,300
- Mid-career pay: $44,800

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 level of education attained, geographic location, and the type of setting in which treatment is performed.

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#7. Outdoor Education

- Early career pay: $35,800
- Mid-career pay: $44,200

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.

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#6. Child & Family Studies

- Early career pay: $34,100
- Mid-career pay: $43,600

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.

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Monkey Business Images // Shutterstock

#5. Early Childhood Education

- Early career pay: $34,100
- Mid-career pay: $43,300

A child's cognitive, emotional, and language development occur in the first five years of life, making early childhood education critical in an adolescent's academic career. The 77% of alumni who say their work makes the world a better place are teaching the next generation of leaders, yet it is one of the lowest-paying majors on the list, further proving that those who enter the field are likely more concerned about the community than salary.

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#4. Mental Health

- Early career pay: $35,200
- Mid-career pay: $42,500

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 caps to their salaries, while those working in institutions may be more constrained by salary caps.

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#3. Medical Assisting

- Early career pay: $35,100
- Mid-career pay: $42,300

One issue that may be keeping medical assisting wages low is an oversupply. Some argue that too many qualified medical assistants are currently searching for work, keeping salaries low.

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#2. Addictions Counseling

- Early career pay: $38,800
- Mid-career pay: $42,200

Addiction counselors work to help those who are struggling with alcohol and substance abuse disorders. While some counselors may work at private rehabilitation clinics where fees allow the clinics to pay staff generously, many others work in the public sector, helping people in facilities run by state, local, and federal government.

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#1. Metalsmithing

- Early career pay: $38,300
- Mid-career pay: $38,400

Many workers with degrees in metalsmithing find work as jewelers. Those working in the retail trade tend to make the most.

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