Which college majors lead to the highest salaries?
One of the main reasons people choose to go to college is the belief that a degree will lead to a high paying role in a secure sector.
However, new research suggests it’s a promise that disproportionately delivers for men.
Bankrate recently analyzed the most lucrative bachelor’s degrees graduates can hold, with many leading to a median salary of six figures after university.
However, the data also revealed that nearly four in five of the graduates who held those degrees were male, with just 22% held by women.
Degrees with six-figure salaries
STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) dominated the 20 degrees that led to the highest salaries upon entering the workforce, Bankrate found.
Having analyzed 151 majors and data on median incomes earned by college graduates, Bankrate found electrical engineering gave the best return on student loans versus earnings.
Electrical engineers’ median earnings came in at $110,000 a year, followed by computer engineers at $104,000.
Several degrees led to a median salary of $100,000: aerospace engineering, computer science, chemical engineering and pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and administration.
However, of the 20 top-earning degrees—which also included the likes of physics, mechanical and civil engineering, economics and applied mathematics—only one course welcomed more women than men: pharmacy. Fifty-six percent of the major’s graduates were women, according to Bankrate’s analysis.
STEM degrees ‘do not insure against the gender wage gap’
Outside of the pharmaceutical world, Bankrate found female-dominated degree subjects were linked to far lower earning potential—with experts noting that even those women who did earn a STEM degree faced pay equity hurdles.
The five majors with the highest percentage of female degree holders included early childhood education (a median salary of $43,000), communications disorders ($57,000), family and consumer services ($45,000) elementary education ($48,40) and nursing ($70,000).
“The fact that the male-female gender gap in lucrative college majors remains so vast after decades of women outnumbering men on college campuses suggests that women are still playing catch-up,” Bankrate analyst Alex Gailey said.
She pointed out that even the women who do graduate with STEM degrees are likely to be paid less than their male colleagues.
“We know that women who study these top-paying degrees are still paid less than their male counterparts once they enter the workforce,” she told Fortune. “In other words, a STEM degree does not insure against the gender wage gap.”
Pew Research found in a 2021 study that the median earnings for women in STEM occupations was $66,200—approximately 74% of the $90,000 earned by men in those jobs.
It’s a narrow increase from 2016, when the gender pay gap in STEM roles stood at 72%.
Women ‘losing millions of dollars’
According to Gailey, women’s overrepresentation in lower-paying degrees and underrepresentation in higher-paying degrees has a “compounding effect” that’s resulting in women earning less over their working lives.
“The pay difference between male-dominated and female-dominated majors is tens of thousands of dollars, which can translate to women losing out on millions of dollars over their lifetime,” she said.
The best way to counter this gap in the long term is to start combatting it as soon as possible, experts told Fortune.
Yuxi He, co-founder of Boston-based education consultancy Knovva Academy, said women often report they don’t feel a sense of belonging in STEM professions, and argued that as a result it’s important to foster female talent in scientific fields from a young age.
She offered some advice to women and girls looking to build a career in STEM-focused industries.
“To set themselves apart in the ever-growing competitive landscape, students need to have STEM-related experience through extracurriculars like math, chemistry and biology clubs,” she said.
“We’d love to see students take a step further, like competing in a national competition, building a robot to solve a problem in their community, or conducting a research project on how safe and clean their local swimming hole is. Their interests should show a path in STEM, but also a well-roundedness of serving the community with their STEM skills or broadening their reach into non-STEM spaces.”
He added that applicants also stand out if they showcase a “genuine and consistent interest” in the field.
“Good academic grades and test scores are fundamentals, but students need to go outside of the classroom to present themselves as a unique and qualified applicant,” she said. “They need to build their personal brand starting early on.”