Top 15 Best Paying College Degrees: 2012

NBER study looks at what college grads can expect to earn in their chosen fields

The skyrocketing price of going to college is enough to make one wonder if it’s worth the cost. The National Bureau of Economic Research has attempted to answer that question by looking at factors that affect the pay that graduates in different disciplines can expect to earn. They used information from the Census Bureau to illustrate average wages.

First to those rising costs. According to the College Board, the average in-state tuition at a public university was $8,244 (more than double that if you include room and board and other fees) for the 2011-'12 academic year. For those who come from out of state, the figure rises to $20,770 ($29,657 total). For private, not-for-profit colleges the average was $28,500 ($38,589 total).

With those costs in mind, the Economic Research Bureau’s study, authored by Joseph G. Altonji, Erica Blom and Costas Meghir, could be seen as a guide for college students when choosing a career. Of course, there are more prosaic reasons for choosing a line of work, such as finding something you love to do. With the report, at the least, students will know what to expect once they hit the job market.

(Check out 30 Best Paying College Majors: 2013 on ThinkAdvisor.)

One interesting highlight of the report is the monetary benefit gained by earning an advanced degree. In some fields the benefit of extra course work is huge. Biological science majors, for instance, earn 51% more than those with a four-year degree. On the other end of the spectrum, communications majors earn just a 4% premium for a higher degree. AdvisorOne also looked at the study for earnings of those in the top 10% in that degree's field, which is not necessarily related to holding an advanced degree.

With that perspective, take a look at the Top 15 Best Paying College Degrees from lowest to highest.

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Check out these other Top 10 lists at ThinkAdvisor:

A letters major focuses on modern and classical languages and literature.

15. Letters

Average Hourly Pay:  $27.41

Pay for Top 10%:  $46.35

Letters is a broad discipline and graduates often find their own career paths. Graduates can boost their pay by an average of 13% by adding an advanced degree to their resumes.

Dividing cells under a microscope.

14. Biological Science

Average Hourly Pay:  $27.26

Pay for Top 10%:  $46.08

As noted in the intro, those earning biological science degrees can increase their wages by a whopping 51%, to an average of $41.27, by spending extra time in the classroom.

White House press secretary Jay Carney talks to reporters. (Photo: AP)

13. Communications

Average Hourly Pay:  $28.17

Pay for Top 10%:  $49.02

Most journalists don’t get into the business to make money, and the average wage in this category proves them right. PR professionals are also in this category. An advanced degree, as noted on the first page, won’t bring much of a pay bump, just 4%.

David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, Mich. (Photo: AP)

12. History

Average Hourly Pay:  $29.52

Pay for Top 10%:  $49.02

Graduate studies provide a nice pay hike of 22% in this field. That’s mostly because the most sought after, higher-end jobs, like museum curators and professorial work, require more than a bachelor’s.

An aging population is driving demand for nurses.

11. Nursing

Average Hourly Pay:  $31.12

Pay for Top 10%:  $46.08

With the aging population, this is a field that is expected to be generating more jobs than candidates. And the pay is decent, although more schooling will only add about 8% to the paycheck.

A master's degree in business management and administration brings a 6% pay bump.

10. Business Management and Administration

Average Hourly Pay:  $31.56

Pay for Top 10%:  $51.96

This is another category for which studying more has debatable benefits. Average wages rise 6% with an advanced degree.

Marketers handing out brochures.

9. Marketing:

Average Hourly Pay:  $32.90

Pay for Top 10%:  $57.29

Marketing is another discipline probably best studied for just four years. A higher degree adds 4% to the average salary.

Lawyer in court

8. Political Science

Average Hourly Pay:  $33.32

Pay for Top 10%:  $57.25

With all the money flowing into election campaigns, it’s no wonder this is a decent paying career path, though many in this area get law degrees. So go get that graduate degree and you’ll see an average 26% spike in salary.

Computer techs working on a server

7. Computers and IT

Average Hourly Pay:  $35.83

Pay for Top 10%:  $56.37

Obviously, this is a hot area that keeps getting hotter. A second degree will add about 6% to the average paycheck.

 Accountants handle lots of tax information for clients

6. Accounting

Average Hourly Pay:  $36.88

Pay for Top 10%:  $60.33

Keeping track of the money is important in every business, and accounting majors can earn a good living. With a graduate degree they can see pay rise by an average of 7%.

J.P. Morgan—math major. (Photo: AP)

5. Mathematics

Average Hourly Pay:  $37.36

Pay for Top 10%:  $63.73

Another field dealing with numbers takes the 5th spot in our countdown. Add some more class time to the equation and you can earn 13% more. Think math is boring and useless? J.P. Morgan (above) held a degree in mathematics and he did OK for himself.

Couple with financial advisor

4. Finance

Average Hourly Pay:  $38.21

Pay for Top 10%:  $65.36

Finance is high on our list, too, and that extra degree bumps up the salary 11%.

NASA engineers working on a Mars rover. (Photo: AP)

3. Mechanical Engineering

Average Hourly Pay:  $40.43

Pay for Top 10%:  $58.82

This is the first of our degrees to crack the $40 barrier, and with graduate studies one can earn 9% more.

Robot woman

2. Electrical Engineering

Average Hourly Pay:  $41.61

Pay for Top 10%:  $63.24

Electrical Engineers earn a little bit more than their mechanical colleagues and an advanced degree can earn them even more, to the tune of an average of 12%. Many electrical engineers work in robotics.

Traders on the floor of the NYSE. (Photo: AP)

1. Economics

Average Hourly Pay:  $43.15

Pay for Top 10%:  $78.43

Math rules, and economics is at the very top. With a graduate degree the average pay climbs 17% and crosses $50, making economics the only discipline on the list that can claim that distinction. It is also the degree that has the highest pay for those in the top 10%. You don't necessarily need a degree to work on the floor of the Stock Exchange, but most Wall Street jobs are where the money's at.

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Other Top 10 Listsfrom ThinkAdvisor:

Check out AdvisorOne's College Special Report 2012 to find out more helpful information.

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