College degrees matter—at least if you’re an engineer

February 22, 2023, 11:00 AM UTC
Engineering majors tend to make the most post-grad. But the sector they funnel into is currently not stable.
10'000 Hours—Getty Images

Recently, some younger generations have started to question the value of a degree as the highly educated cohort of millennials still struggles financially, dealing with student debt and stagnant wages, not to mention multiple recessions. Still, a degree can get you far, if you make the right choice. And it pays to be a (very specific type of) nerd, according to no less an authority than the New York Federal Reserve. 

When it comes to who gets paid the most five years post-grad, STEM majors sweep the field, with nearly all of the top median wages for early careers being earned by engineering majors, according to the New York Fed study. And it’s not just high pay right out the gate, as many of these majors also have higher mid-career earnings. 

Here are the top majors that lead to the highest pay five years after graduation, along with their median salaries:

  1. Chemical engineering: $75,000
  2. Computer engineering: $74,000
  3. Computer science: $73,000
  4. Aerospace engineering: $72,000
  5. Electrical engineering: $70,000
  6. Industrial engineering: $70,000
  7. Mechanical engineering: $70,000
  8. Miscellaneous engineering: $68,000
  9. Business analytics: $66.000
  10. Civil engineering: $65,000

College graduates earn more than their peers: On average, young adults with a bachelor’s degree earn a median of $52.000 annually (per the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s November data). For those with just a high school degree, that number shrinks to $30,000 annually. 

It leads to greater wealth building down the line, too, as those with a bachelor degree earn twice the median lifetime earnings than those without one. Americans with a bachelors rake in median lifetime earnings of $2.8 million, while those with a high school diploma or GED earn in about $1.6 million, per a 2021 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

It’s worth noting that some of the majors with the lowest-paying jobs seem to correlate to sectors that have hiring issues. Majors in social services make a median wage of $37,000 in their early career and $52,000 in their mid career. Miscellaneous education majors too have lower salaries, perhaps prefacing the teaching crisis in which educators leave their high-pressure jobs for better pay. 

Robot ruminations

Engineering therefore might seem especially interesting to Gen Zers leaving college and entering a world marked by high inflation. Motivated in part by good pay, this youngest working generation said in a TalentLMS survey that they’d quit their job for a better salary. With their top concern being cost of living, almost half of millennials and Gen Zers reported to Deloitte in 2022 that they live paycheck to paycheck. It all fuels the fire for a livable wage, as they also told Deloitte that getting better pay was the top reason for leaving a job over the past two years.

Chemical engineers are at the top of the heap, with graduates aged 35 to 45 making around $120,000. That’s not to say that other non-STEM majors aren’t aren’t profitable, as those in construction services make a median mid-career salary of $100,000 and those majoring in international affairs follow at $86,000.

The tech world isn’t what it used to be, though. Some millennials and older Gen Zers left the cradle of college and entered Silicon Valley during a promising period. Offices were swanky, there were weird perks like laundry service, and opportunities were seemingly endless. These days though, engineers aren’t in the same cushy ergonomic chair they once were in, as companies like Meta experience a decline in value and turn to layoffs and rolling back the perks (which turned out to be not all they seemed). According to, in 2022 alone, about 1,045 tech companies performed layoffs and let go of around 160,997 employees.

Responding to hiring surges during the early pandemic and also a potential recession, Big Tech companies have been letting go of their highly paid engineers. To be fair, many have seemed to land on their feet and easily find other jobs. But the idea of a highly paid and consistent job in engineering has been destabilized. And as ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence tools enter the conversation, software engineers are not immune to the fear their jobs will belong to robots one day. Semafor reported that the company behind ChatGPT, OpenAI, has hired engineers to train A.I. in “data labeling” and basic coding, perhaps pushing out the need for engineers that do said tasks in the future.

For now, though, engineering is still the college major with the highest robot-proof return on investment.

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