Every fall, hundreds of thousands of students descend upon college campuses as freshmen. They are wide-eyed optimists, ready to begin that trek toward a degree and a great career.

Of course, they are also excited about college life in general – more independence, living away from home for the first time, getting the chance to prove that they can be responsible, clean their living spaces, do their laundry, and live on a budget. Most of them have also at least an initial idea of a major, though that may change over time.

About Those Majors

College is a big-ticket item. Students often emerge with lots of debt and are hoping to land great-paying jobs so that they can pay off that debt and actually “have a life.”

So there are some hard choices to make here. Does a student follow their passion and go into a field where salaries are generally lower, or does the student use the data that show the really good-paying jobs and select from among that listing?

Students will have to find the right decision for themselves, obviously, but here to help out a bit is a listing of the college degrees that command the highest starting salaries. They are grouped in categories.

Undergraduate Degrees

1. Engineering

While chemical engineering commands the top starting salary ($72,000), other engineering fields were not far behind – electrical, civil, mechanical, and systems. Overall, the average starting salary for engineering positions is $65,000.

2. Computer Science

Areas of specialization in this major include computer engineering, computer information systems, and artificial intelligence, all of which will command a starting salary around $60,000. Computer programmers have lower starts – an average of $43,000.

3. Mathematics and Statistics

Degrees in these fields will open up career opportunities as research, economic, and intelligence analysts, actuaries, math statisticians, logistics coordinators, and teaching. In all but teaching, starting salaries are within the low $60,000 range.

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The preceding careers are known in education as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and employment forecasters predict plenty of jobs in these fields, up to 2022. So think of it!

4. Economics

People with degrees in economics typically go into fields such as market research, actuary, financial and credit analysis, and public policy economic analysis and forecasting. Jobs in these fields will be plentiful over the next decade, and the starting salaries average $58,600. This is a tough degree program because of the statistics courses involved, but job security is good.

5. Finance

Typical positions with a finance degree include financial analysis and advising, auditors, loan officers and budget analysts. While technology will continue to impact these positions, those who keep up on training and development opportunities will have a secure position. Average starting salary is $58,000.

6. Accounting

A Bachelor’s degree in accounting will open up certain job opportunities with companies looking for in-house accountants. Typical tasks include keeping general ledger balances, preparing financial statements and managing budgeting and financial operations. These positions typically demand a starting average salary around $53,000.

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An accountant may also choose to move forward and get a CPA license –this requires some 2000 hours of work experience or significant additional coursework and passing the CPA exam. Once that license is obtained, however, starting salaries increase, and opportunities do as well. CPA’s are one of two professions hired by the FBI – the other is law.

7. Nursing

Graduates with a Bachelor’s in nursing can expect a starting salary within the low $50,000 range. This is an extremely high-demand field, as is all health care, with an extremely secure future. Many nurses, in fact, decides to go on to a Master’s degree nursing program, so that they can specialize in a specific field of medicine or obtain a Nurse Practitioner license. A Master’s degree adds about $10,000 to the initial starting salary.

8. Business

While a Bachelor’s in business is not as in demand as an MBA, there are still positions available, to include banking officer, payroll director, HR management, and marketing manager, dependent upon the specialty field you emphasized. You can expect to pull a starting salary just under $50,000. Obviously, going to graduate school for an MBA opens up many more career opportunities for you, along with a much larger starting salary.

9. Non-Nursing Health Care Careers

Again, this is an ever-increasing high-demand field, with lots of career options, including hospital and clinic administration and management, nursing supervision, life care planner, and medical librarian, dependent upon coursework specialization. Managing health care will continue to be an expanding field over at least the next decade and beyond. Expect an average starting salary of $48,300.

10. Architecture

This is a field in which there is not a continuing high demand, because advances in technology now perform many of the functions of traditional architects. Positions in this field are now generally related to design concepts and materials selection. Starting salaries have also declined over the years, and a beginning architect can probably expect to begin in the $47,000 range.

11. Biological Sciences

While any research position will require a graduate degree, there are positions in research facilities and medical labs for individuals with Bachelor’s degrees in biology. There are also positions with governmental entities that require biological testing (water treatment plants, sewage facilities, forensics, etc.) Expect a beginning salary in the mid-$40,000 range.

12. Criminal Justice

There are several possible career positions with this degree – law enforcement, court positions, prison administration, investigative assistance, etc. The field continues to be in moderate demand and starting salaries average about $45,000.

13. Physical Sciences

Degrees in fields such as geology, meteorology, astronomy, energy, acoustics, and chemistry will allow entry-level positions in labs and in public sectors. Typical positions such as weather reporter, energy auditor, acoustical engineering, and laboratory testing will have a starting salary of $44,000.

14. Political Science

Most people with Bachelor’s degrees in political science do not go into politics unless it is at the local level. There are exciting positions available with campaigns, however, especially during election years. Other position may be available in public administration, such as city management, and most salaries begin in the lower $40,000 range. Many political science majors go on to graduate school, often law school.

15. Education

Any of the fields mentioned above can be combined with education coursework, so that graduates may have teacher certification and go on to teach content areas courses at the middle and high school levels.

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Some fields of teaching are a bit overcrowded right now, including elementary education, PE and social studies, so job prospects are a bit dim in those fields. However, math, science and special education teachers are in high demand and will continue to be so. It is also projected that about 50% of the current teaching force will retire over the next 10 years, and with fewer students going into education, many forecasters are predicting a shortage. The average starting salary is in the low $40,000 range, depending upon financial conditions of specific school districts and geographical location.

16. Graphic Design

This field is rather a mixed bag. Given the continued exponential growth of the Internet, positions are certainly available. Just as with many other fields, however, this one is contracting a bit. As technology improves the ability of novices to create their own graphic designs, the need for “experts” will decrease. Many graphic designers become freelancers. Average early income ranges from $35 - $40,000.

Graduate Degrees

In many fields, a Bachelor’s degree will simply not open up career opportunities, and a graduate or professional program will be a necessity. Students who enter college and select certain major fields of study, need to be willing to continue their educations in order to be employable. The good news is, a graduate degree usually commands a higher salary.

17. Health Care

As stated earlier, medical training for nursing careers in specialty areas or as nurse practitioners will be in high demand in both the near and long-term future. A Master’s degree or a nurse practitioner license will bring a starting salary in the $55 - $60,000 start range.

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Physicians and surgeons will also continue to be in demand, especially in areas of geriatric care, as our population continues to age. Medical and pharmacological research will also be high-demand positions. Expect $80,000 at a minimum entry-level salary.

18. Education

Educators who wish to go into administration will need a minimum of a Master’s degree, and a Ph.D. for some positions.

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School guidance counselors must have a Master’s degree and at least two year of teaching in most states.

Post-secondary teacher will also demand a Master’s or PH.D., dependent upon the type of institution. A master’s in specific vocational/tech fields will allow teaching positions in those schools.

Salaries for all of the careers range from $50,000 all the way up to well over $100,000 for top administrative positions.

19. The Law

Lawyers must attend a 3-year law school program and then pass the state bar examination. Depending upon the firm with which they are employed, they can expect to begin at about $65,000 on the average. Currently there are too many lawyers, but predictions are that the demand will again rise gradually over the next decade. There are also positions available with large corporations, health care organizations, school districts, the FBI, and the IRS, dependent upon one’s specialty.

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Find that “sweet spot” that matches your passions with the career and income you want, and you will have found your perfect niche.