It’s the wrong time to be right-brained.

Students who majored in liberal arts, performing arts, and theology or religion can expect to earn the lowest salaries within five years of graduating from college, per a February 2024 New York Federal Reserve analysis. Alumni of each of those three majors are making a median annual income of $38,000 five years out—the lowest among the 75 majors the Fed studied. (Full disclosure: I’m a former English major who graduated college five years ago.) 

Some of the other lowest-paying majors include hospitality, anthropology, early childhood education, history, and fine arts—all of which lead to an underwhelming $40,000 salary five years post-grad.  

These salaries may seem eye-poppingly low, particularly given how exorbitant the cost of a college education has become—to say nothing of the current cost-of living dilemma. As of 2022, the median household income in the U.S. is $74,580, per 2022 Census data. 

The numbers clearly reflect what few would like to believe is true: Arts are simply undervalued, and the work of historians and liberal-arts experts is woefully underfunded, despite the fact they bring great joy and enrichment to everyday life, and have since the invention of the written word.

There are, of course, still well-paying jobs for individuals in each of these fields. (English majors could choose journalism, for example, though the print-media industry is currently imperiled.) But far too often, there are too few jobs to go around for ambitious young workers, leading to a crisis in each of the fields. 

Then there are fields, like early-childhood education or daycare work, that incur major costs while rarely paying market rate. Teachers often dig into their own pockets for basic classroom necessities, and an enduring teacher shortage—a holdover from the pandemic Zoom school era—has led to uneven caseloads and overcrowded classrooms. Daycare workers often lack basic protections, and daycare itself has become too expensive for many families to pay.

The opposite issue is plaguing the accounting field, where too few students are entering the pipeline. That said, companies need accountants, which has resulted in firms being desperate for young blood, offering hefty bonuses and starting salaries for the sparse applicants in an emptying pool.  

The big winners

When it comes to the best-paying college majors, STEM wins again. The highest-paid college graduates, per the Fed, majored in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics topics, with engineers leading the pack. Just out of college, chemical engineers can command $79,000 salaries—a median figure that leaps to $133,000 within 15 years of graduation, the highest of any major. Rounding out the top five are computer engineering, computer science, aerospace engineering, and electrical engineering. 

Unfortunately, these findings from the Fed disproportionately benefit men. Nearly 80% of college graduates with STEM degrees are male, a recent Bankrate report found, meaning men overwhelmingly work in the consistently high-paying job fields. (Not unrelatedly, traditionally female work, like teaching and caregiving, is consistently underpaid.) 

“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 wrote in the report.  

Insult to injury: If you’re a fan of working from home—as most people are, to some extent—you’ll find high-earning jobs harder to come by. Per a 2023 report from career site Ladders, remote roles in the best-paid industries have been dropping every quarter since 2022. Just 12% of the top-paying jobs listed on Ladder’s site are remote. 

“If you want the highest-paying jobs available right now, you should hold an advanced degree and expect to work in person,” John Mullinix, Ladders’s director of marketing, wrote in the report. “If you are willing to do those two things, you will face low competition for jobs in your field.”

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