50 college majors that earn the least money

Published 6:00 am Thursday, January 27, 2022


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 report, fresh with 2021 data, 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. Ties are broken by early career salary.

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 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.

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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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Orhan Cam // Shutterstock

#50. Parks and recreation management

– 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. Some government workers just received their first pay raise in over a decade in 2019.

Viktor Gladkov // Shutterstock

#49. Ceramics

– 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.

DGLimages // Shutterstock

#48. Vocal performance

– 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.

Hotaik Sung // Shutterstock

#47. Pastoral ministry

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

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.


#46. Art teacher education

– 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. 

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Freedom Studio // Shutterstock

#45. Bible studies and theology

– 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. Fewer Americans than ever report themselves as religious.


#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.  

Photographee.eu // Shutterstock

#43. Communication sciences and disorders

– 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 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.

PhuShutter // Shutterstock

#42. Legal assistant studies

– 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.

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, 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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#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 offer low or no pay, making it nearly impossible for people to perform this work, pay off their student debt, and sustain themselves. As people abandon the field for different work, the world suffers a collective loss.

Photographee.eu // 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.

Africa Studio // Shutterstock

#38. Speech and hearing

– 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 much administrative assistance after purchase.

pixelheadphoto digitalskillet // Shutterstock

#37. Christian ministry

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

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.

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

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buteo // Shutterstock

#35. Musical theater

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

Although a musical theater degree will provide you with the foundations for success on Broadway, that pathway is highly competitive. The good news is that there are many theater-adjacent roles in the areas of performance, production, business, education, and mental health into which this degree can segue.


#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, 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.

Krakenimages.com // Shutterstock

#33. Developmental psychology

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

Developmental psychologists study how people change over the course of their lifetime, from a variety of perspectives including biologically, socially, emotionally, and cognitively. Advanced degrees, licensure, internships, and certifications can mean the accrual of significant debt before someone 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 disease 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.

fizkes // Shutterstock

#31. Community and human services

– 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.

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#30. Applied behavioral science

– 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.

Monkey Business Images // Shutterstock

#29. Social work

– 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 in clinical settings, in particular, will continue to enjoy a rise in demand for workers.

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 $40,660 annually, and administrative assistants, who annually make $38,880.

DGLimages // Shutterstock

#27. Family and community services

– 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.


#26. Ministry

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

To be a minister is to be a lifelong student of the Bible and a leader in the Catholic Church. Some students may pursue seminary school upon completion of a ministry degree or may pursue a specialization like working with youth. But church membership is falling as the number of Americans with no religious affiliation continues to rise. 

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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, lack the ability to respond to the 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, 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.

Igor Bulgarin // Shutterstock

#23. Voice and opera

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

Voice and opera students preparing to perform on a professional level 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, or music, or becoming a musical director or composer.


#22. Conflict resolution

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

Whether it’s 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. 

pixelheadphoto digitalskillet // Shutterstock

#21. Christian ministry

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

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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fizkes // Shutterstock

#20. Human services management

– 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. Many of these roles require additional licensing.

hryshai olena // Shutterstock

#19. Baking and pastry arts

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

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.


#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 and beverage director, chef, caterer, and banquet manager, among others. But the hospitality industry, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is facing a reckoning. The industry 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 would likely be unable to help themselves. As such, these jobs, which range from family court advocates to crisis support workers, service overall a population with limited resources who may not be able to compensate them highly.

fizkes // Shutterstock

#16. Counseling

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

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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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

Child care workers have an average hourly wage of just $10.31. 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.

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 very often are 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 go on to teach students in grades five through nine. 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 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.


#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 15 million people in the U.S. live in mental health care health professional shortage areas

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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 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 amongst winning team members can be very lucrative.

Photographee.eu // 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 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

Child care 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.

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Rawpixel.com // 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 occur 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, further proving 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 caps to their salaries, 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

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.

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.

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