The 10 Most Popular College Majors
Published on November 10, 2020
- Choosing a college major requires extensive research and self-evaluation.
- Some majors offer better job and salary prospects than others.
- Five fields of study comprise more than half of all conferred bachelor's degrees.
- Popular college majors include business, psychology, and engineering.
Beyond choosing a college to attend, picking a college major is often the most important decision you'll make as a student. Figuring out what to focus on in your studies is a huge step toward determining your career path. As such, it's perfectly normal to feel anxious and unsure about your decision.
Whether you're preparing for college or already enrolled in school, we've compiled a list of the 10 most popular majors and fields of study to help make your decision easier. But first, what factors should you take into account before deciding on a major?
4 Factors to Consider When Choosing a Major
Choosing a major requires careful consideration and a thorough self-assessment. While your passion and interests should play a key role in your decision, factors such as cost, return on investment, and job prospects are equally important in the decision-making process.
Interests and Abilities
When picking a college major, you should first consider your strengths and interests. Determining what you excel at can be difficult, but identifying your talents can help ensure you choose a major that best suits your academic abilities.
Making a list of your strengths and weaknesses allows you to assess what kind of major to pursue, or even avoid. For example, a computer science major could be a great fit if you enjoy math and problem-solving. Alternatively, if you struggle with English courses, you may want to exclude a literature major from consideration.
Program cost is another factor you must take into consideration before committing to a major. Certain degrees, like law and medicine, demand significant financial commitments since they require additional education beyond the first four years.
Tuition is often considerably more expensive for out-of-state students.
Additionally, tuition is often considerably more expensive for out-of-state students. For example, the first year of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's bachelor of science in nursing program costs $12,314 in tuition and fees for in-state residents, but $44,001 for out-of-state residents — that's a difference of more than $30,000.
Ruling out colleges with distinguished programs for cost-related reasons can be frustrating, but it's a factor nearly every prospective student must take into account.
Not all majors offer the same job prospects. Be sure to research employment trends for your biggest areas of interest. Some majors lead to jobs that are in decline, making positions highly competitive and more difficult to obtain, while others are growing and offer abundant career opportunities.
Furthermore, some degrees, like communication and business, are designed to equip you with marketable skills and knowledge that can translate to many industries. While you might not necessarily aspire to become a financial analyst or marketing specialist, these types of majors let you hone transferable skills that are useful for a variety of careers.
It's critical that you consider the earning potential of your prospective major. But before you start doing that, ask yourself whether salary is an important factor for your future lifestyle.
Ask yourself whether salary is important to you.
Art degrees, for instance, don't typically offer high earning potential, but the passion art students have for their majors and eventual career paths often outweighs the modest salary prospects.
To get a better read on future income potential, you can research median salaries for different majors and occupations using PayScale, Glassdoor, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Each website features detailed salary information and career tools to help you make an informed decision.
The 10 Most Popular College Majors
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), U.S. colleges and universities awarded 2 million bachelor's degrees in 2017-18. More than half of these degrees were concentrated in just five fields of study.
Plentiful job opportunities and high entry-level salaries make certain fields of study more attractive. For example, business and health degrees account for nearly one-third of all undergraduate degrees. Both fields continue to experience strong employment growth, making it easier for students to secure jobs after graduation.
Additionally, many career paths in these in-demand fields offer attractive pay and advancement opportunities.
Table of Contents
Business degrees are among the most popular undergraduate degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions. NCES reports that 19% of bachelor's degrees (386,000) in the U.S. were awarded in business in 2017-18.
As organizations expand their operations, the job and salary prospects for business majors also grow. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for business and financial occupations is $69,820, which is about $30,000 more than the median salary for all jobs.
Business degrees are among the most popular undergraduate degrees in the U.S.
Business programs explore fundamental business principles and practices that enable companies to run efficiently. Students pursuing a business major often study multidisciplinary concepts so they can develop strong communication, leadership, and critical thinking skills.
Business degree-holders are qualified for a diverse array of positions in nearly every industry. The field of business encompasses numerous specializations and career paths, such as accounting, marketing, and entrepreneurship.
Business Career Paths
2. Health Professions
As the population ages and people become more reliant on healthcare services, the demand for health professionals will continue to rise. The BLS projects the employment of all healthcare occupations will grow 15% between 2019 and 2029, adding around 2.4 million jobs — more than any other occupational group.
Health professionals tend to enjoy high entry-level salaries.
This strong demand may help explain why health-related majors are among the most popular degrees conferred. According to NCES, colleges awarded 245,000 bachelor's degrees in health professions and related programs in 2017-18, accounting for 12% of all bachelor's degrees.
Health professionals tend to enjoy high entry-level salaries. BLS data reveals that healthcare workers (excluding those in healthcare support roles) earn a median annual income of $68,190.
Each healthcare career path requires different training and coursework. For example, nurse practitioner programs require students to engage in clinical practice, working directly with patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and public health offices. Nevertheless, nearly all healthcare programs cover basic topics like wellness, anatomy, and physiology.
Health Professions Career Paths
3. Social Sciences and History
The BLS projects that employment of all life, physical, and social science occupations will grow 5% between 2019 and 2029, adding about 68,200 new jobs. To help meet this demand, an increasing number of students are pursuing social science majors. According to NCES, around 160,000 degrees in social sciences and history were awarded by postanchor institutions in 2017-18.
To help meet demand, an increasing number of students are pursuing social science majors.
The median annual pay for life, physical, and social science occupations is $68,160. However, because social science encompasses many different fields, wages can vary greatly by industry and occupation.
Undergraduate social science coursework generally takes an interdisciplinary approach, incorporating topics such as economics, sociology, and history. Social science programs often provide a liberal arts education, developing students' analytical, communication, and leadership skills, and preparing them for an array of potential career paths.
Social Sciences and History Career Paths
The demand for engineers is projected to increase as the market for renewable energy and other alternative energy methods continues to grow. According to NCES, 122,000 students earned their bachelor's degree in an engineering field in 2017-18.
Engineering degrees boast some of the highest entry-level salaries.
Due to the specialized nature of this field, engineering degrees tend to yield some of the highest entry-level salaries. Currently, architecture and engineering occupations earn a median salary of $81,440, or about twice the median income of all occupations.
While major coursework varies depending on the engineering field, all undergraduate programs develop students' skills in areas like project management, graphical communication, and problem-solving. Students can also expect to solve engineering problems using math models, design solutions, and quantitative methods.
The many different branches of engineering means students will have plenty of career options.
Engineering Career Paths
5. Biological and Biomedical Sciences
According to NCES, U.S. colleges and universities bestowed 119,000 bachelor's degrees in biological and biomedical sciences in 2017-18. This figure represents a 68% increase since 2005-06, when nearly 71,000 degrees were conferred in this field.
Biological sciences majors have grown rapidly in popularity since 2005-06.
Many biology-related occupations promise high earning potential and ongoing job growth, which may help explain why this field is so popular. Biochemists and biophysicists currently earn a median annual salary of $94,490, whereas all other biological scientists make around $82,220 a year. Employment of biochemists and biophysicists is projected to grow 4% through 2029.
Undergraduate biology programs explore a diverse number of subjects, such as ecology, cell biology, and genetics. Often, biology majors will specialize in a particular area of study to pursue a specific career path.
Biological and Biomedical Sciences Career Paths
As mental health concerns rise, more people are turning to psychologists for help. The BLS projects that overall employment of psychologists will grow 3% through 2029, which is about as fast as the average growth rate for all jobs.
Psychologists earn about double the median pay for all occupations.
Psychologists earn a high median annual pay of $80,370 — about double the median pay for all occupations. According to NCES, postsecondary institutions conferred approximately 116,000 bachelor's degrees in psychology in 2017-18.
Psychology programs typically include coursework on research methods, statistical analysis, and cognitive processes. Supervised clinical experiences are usually part of graduate coursework as well.
While careers as a clinical psychologist normally require a doctorate, a bachelor's degree in psychology can qualify graduates for roles in business and education. Because psychology programs develop students' understanding of human behavior, bachelor's degree-holders often find successful careers in fields like marketing, advertising, and sales.
Psychology Career Paths
7. Communication and Journalism
A communication or journalism major helps students learn marketable skills that qualify them for employment in nearly every industry, meaning salaries can vary widely. According to the BLS, media and communication workers earn a median annual income of $59,230.
Undergraduate journalism courses are designed to enhance students' reporting, writing, and critical thinking skills. Students study a variety of media subjects, including philosophies of modern journalism, media law and ethics, and storytelling.
Journalism courses enhance students’ reporting, writing, and critical thinking skills.
By contrast, bachelor's in communication programs are best suited for those seeking a general liberal arts education and looking to build competencies that can translate to many occupations. Coursework often includes topics such as public speaking, public relations, and broadcasting.
In 2017-18, approximately 92,300 students earned their bachelor's degree in communication or journalism. While each major focuses on different disciplines of media, both prepare students for careers in business, marketing, and writing.
Communication and Journalism Career Paths
8. Visual and Performing Arts
Given that earning potential is somewhat lower than other fields, the financial burden of an art degree is often viewed as the primary drawback. According to the BLS, arts and design occupations make a median annual salary of $48,130, which is slightly higher than the median wage for all occupations.
For many, pursuing a career in the arts is more about the intrinsic rewards.
Nevertheless, a whopping 88,600 bachelor's degrees were conferred in visual and performing arts in 2017-18. For many students, pursuing a career in the arts is less about the financial benefits than it is the intrinsic rewards.
Undergraduate art courses build creative, collaborative, and time-management skills. Art students can expect to spend much of their time working in art studios and labs. Many bachelor's in art programs focus on theory and practice, while other programs, such as fashion merchandising, may delve into areas related to administration and design.
In any case, art degree-holders can pursue career paths both in the art world and outside of it.
Visual and Performing Arts Career Paths
The BLS projects that 441,000 new jobs will be added in education, training, and library occupations in the coming decade. Largely attributed to increasing student enrollment numbers, this growth will call for additional teachers to meet the demand. According to NCES, colleges and universities conferred 82,600 bachelor's degrees in education in 2017-18.
Salaries for educators vary depending on the level they teach.
Salaries for educators vary depending on the level they teach. For example, whereas college professors earn a median annual salary of $79,540, middle school teachers only earn a median annual wage of $59,660.
Bachelor's in education programs teach students how to manage classrooms, design curricula, and effectively support their students. While major coursework varies by the grade level and subject you teach, common education courses include contemporary teaching practices, social contexts of education, and adolescent development.
With an education degree, students can pursue careers as teachers, administrators, and counselors.
Education Career Paths
10. Computer and Information Sciences
As technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, organizations are looking for trained computer professionals to solve technical problems and improve efficiency. In 2017-18, postsecondary institutions awarded 79,600 bachelor's degrees in computer and information sciences.
Computer specialists enjoy high salaries and strong employment growth.
Bachelor's in computer science programs cover topics like information theory, basic programming, data structures, and operating system fundamentals. Computer science majors often work with several programming languages and solve complex coding problems, allowing them to hone their critical thinking skills.
Due to both the high demand and industry shortage of computer specialists, these skilled professionals enjoy high salaries and strong employment growth. At present, computer and information technology professionals earn a median annual salary of $88,240.
Computer and Information Sciences Career Paths
Finding the Right College Major for You
You've likely heard the importance of selecting a college major that will help secure you a job. There are many benefits to possessing a bachelor's degree in a popular subject area.
A business administration degree, for example, equips you with competencies that qualify you for a plethora of employment opportunities in industries like retail, marketing, and finance. Popular majors also tend to lead to careers with attractive salaries and in-demand positions.
Although potential earnings and job opportunities are important factors to consider, your passion and interests should play a significant role in your decision-making process as well. After all, your major will greatly impact your college experience and future career.
Although potential earnings and job opportunities are important factors to consider when choosing a major, your passion and interests should play a significant role as well.
If you're considering a more niche major that doesn't offer abundant job opportunities, like art history or photography, you should assess your abilities and skills in that subject area. This can be a challenging task, but, as with any college major, your future professional success largely depends on your talent and skills. This is even more important for less popular majors, as jobs in niche fields tend to be highly competitive.
It's usually more challenging to find a high-paying job with an unconventional major, but working in a field you love can be extremely fulfilling. It's up to you to determine whether your career aspirations include a high-paying salary or an intrinsically rewarding job that might not offer high earning potential.
Ultimately, possessing a bachelor's degree in any field will raise your overall employability.
Feature Image: Hispanolistic / E+ / Getty Images