NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- For new college students, choosing a major sets the course of their lifetime earning potential, yet most students study what they enjoy rather than considering their future income. Americans spend 80,000 hours working during their lifetime, so liking one's job is important, but overlooking future earning potential can have lasting negative consequences.
A Princeton University study found that Americans who earn $75,000 a year are happier than those who earn less. Comparing job opportunities and related salaries for potential majors before graduating could lead to greater happiness later in life. That's especially the case as student debt levels continue to rise, with the class of 2015 owing an average of $35,000.
Before declaring a major, students should check out PayScale's annual college salary report, which ranks the highest paying college majors according to salary data from recent graduates. "The increased cost of a college education makes it even more important that students factor cost, career goals and projected alumni outcome data into their decisions around college choice," said Katie Bardaro, director of analytics and lead economist at PayScale. "Make sure you do some research on your fields of interest in terms of earning potential and employability so you can ensure you'll be able to pay off any student loan debt you have to incur."
The CliffsNotes version of PayScale's highest paying college majors can be summed up in one word: engineering.
Majors in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) offer the highest paying jobs, and engineering majors in particular dominate when it comes to earning potential. Actuarial mathematics is the only non-engineering major to make the top ten list. The other top ten highest paying majors range from petroleum engineering to computer engineering to electrical engineering.
That's especially true for women. Among recent college graduates, women tend to outearn men slightly when they choose engineering as their major, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Economists Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey and found that certain majors pay a premium based on gender. "Young women earn particularly high wage premiums if they majored in engineering, treatment therapy, art history, construction services, or business analytics," they wrote. "At the other end of the spectrum, men tend to earn more than women by the widest margin if they majored in agriculture, animal and plant sciences, general social sciences or early childhood education."
Engineering isn't the only high-paying field on PayScale's list, but everything in the top 20 list is a STEM major. In fact, the first non-STEM major on the list is government, at number 23, with an expected first-year salary of $45,000. To put that in perspective, most engineering graduates can expect a first year salary over $65,000, and a petroleum engineer will earn a hefty $102,000 upon graduation.
First year salaries rarely top the $75,000 happiness threshold, but by mid-career more than 80 majors in a variety of fields result in incomes that exceed that level. The majority of majors on PayScale's list, however, offer mid-year career salaries under $75,000. Child development is the worst paying major, with mid-year career salaries around $36,400.
Choosing a major should result in a career path that is enjoyable on a day-to-day basis and also provides financial freedom. Nobody goes to college to feel trapped in a job just to be able to afford student loan payments. With a little foresight and careful planning, that fate can be avoided.