Five College Degrees That Could Pay You Back


Check out these five degrees that could prepare you to pursue a career with good job prospects and high average pay.

By Terence Loose

Okay, you've decided this is the year you'll go back to school and get your degree. But in what?

That's a really good question, especially if you're looking for a degree that has the potential to pay you back. After all, college can be a significant investment of time and money.

Just ask Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and writer of the human resources site at

"I see students in bad situations all the time. They spent a lot of money on school, but got a degree that no one wants and now they can't find jobs," Heathfield says.

We're guessing you don't want to be one of those students. So we asked her advice on identifying some degrees with the potential to pay students back, either in the form of job prospects or good average pay. To further test the degrees' payback factor, we took two more steps:

  • We checked out a 2012 Georgetown University study called "Hard times, College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings: Not All College Majors Are Created Equal," which listed unemployment rates for recent and experienced grads in various majors. Any major with an unemployment rate above 8.2 percent (the March 2012 unemployment rate, per the U.S. Department of Labor) failed our test.*
  • Next, we studied potential careers and average salaries these majors could lead to. Our listed careers had to have a median wage higher than $45,230 - the national average for all jobs, according to the Department of Labor's May 2011 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates United States.

Read on for five degrees with the potential to pay students back...

Degree #1 - Bachelor's in Accounting

If you've heard the phrase, "The only certainties in life are death and taxes," then you might have an idea of how important accountants can be. The typical requirement for this career is a bachelor's degree in accounting, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Potential Payback Factor: "It's a good major and career path for the future because businesses are more and more focused on having executives that can understand balance sheets," says Heathfield. "It's critical in today's business world." She adds that this is not a dull, paper-and-pencil field any longer and that students who want to be successful should embrace computer and online technologies in accounting.

Click to Find the Right Accounting Program Now.

The College Board, a century-old organization of colleges and universities that lists commonly offered courses, notes that accounting majors tend to take classes in accounting information systems, and in some cases, they may even act out accounting scenarios in a computer lab.

Unemployment Rate for Recent Accounting Grads: 6.8 percent*

Potential Career Path: Accountant**

Median Annual Wage: $62,850***
Average for Workers in the 90th Percentile: $109,870
Average for Workers in the 10th Percentile: $39,640

Degree #2 - Bachelor's in Computer Science

Is your idea of "pimping out your ride" giving your computer a new memory card? Does the word surfing refer to an indoor sport done on a board with keys? If so, consider earning a bachelor's degree in computer science, which has the potential to keep you employed, according to Heathfield.

Potential Payback Factor: "With a computer science degree, you are going to be employed. And if you keep your skills up, you'll be employed for as long as you want," says Heathfield. She also adds that companies are screening applicants based on having a four-year computer science degree.

Click to Find the Right Computer Science Program Now.

And just what do you learn in this degree that's so valuable? According to the College Board, computer science majors will likely take courses like mathematics for computer science, digital system design, data structures and algorithms, and artificial intelligence.

Unemployment Rate for Recent Computer Science Grads: 7.8 percent*

Potential Career Path: Computer Programmer**

Median Annual Wage: $72,630***
Average for Workers in the 90th Percentile: $115,610
Average for Workers in the 10th Percentile: $41,710

Degree #3 - Bachelor's in Health and Medical Administrative Services

If you're interested in how the future of health care will be managed, you could be cut out for a bachelor's degree in health care administration. This degree could prepare you to pursue a career as a health services manager, an occupation which the U.S. Department of Labor projects to grow by 22 percent from 2010 to 2020.

Potential Payback Factor: "Good health care administration people are going to be in demand because the number of people needing health care is increasing, and preventative medicine will also expand the need in the future," says Heathfield.

Click to Find the Right Health Care Administration Program Now.

To ensure that healthy future, health care administration majors might take commonly offered classes in everything from health care law, statistics, and accounting to health care ethics, human resources, and epidemiology, according to the College Board.

Unemployment Rate for Experienced Health and Medical Administrative Grads: 2.9 percent*

Potential Career Path: Medical and Health Services Manager**

Median Annual Wage: $86,400***
Average for Workers in the 90th Percentile: $147,890
Average for Workers in the 10th Percentile: $52,730

Degree #4 - Bachelor's in Marketing and Marketing Research

Do you watch commercials and say, "Who writes this junk? I could do way better!" You might enjoy earning a bachelor's degree in marketing. It's a degree that could prepare you to pursue a career as a copywriter, says Heathfield.

Potential Payback Factor: While Heathfield notes that print may decline, she thinks that TV advertising will continue to be big. "One job in marketing that is never going to go away is copywriter, because it's all about getting people's attention quickly," says Heathfield. She adds that if you really want to be hirable, make sure you study up on social media and cloud and mobile computing. "That's what every company wants in a marketing person," she says.

Click to Find the Right Marketing Program Now.

In addition to social media, the College Board says marketing degrees often cover courses like consumer behavior, marketing research, international marketing, and advertising and promotion.

Unemployment Rate for Recent Marketing Grads: 7.3 percent*

Potential Career Path: Writer/Author**

Median Annual Wage: $55,870***
Average for Workers in the 90th Percentile: $115,740
Average for Workers in the 10th Percentile: $28,180

Degree #5 - Bachelor's in Nursing

Are you a born healer who likes to help people? It might be time to start preparing to make your role official by earning a bachelor's degree in nursing - a program that could lead to an in-demand career.

Potential Payback Factor: Just ask the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency put registered nurses at the top of their February 2012 "Occupations with the largest job growth" list thanks to their expectation that the field will see 711,900 jobs created from 2010 to 2020.

And why so in demand? "Any hands-on aspect of the health care field that can't be computerized, can't be outsourced, can't go away from the side of a patient's bed, is going to be in demand," says Heathfield.

Click to Find the Right Registered Nursing Program Now.

With a bachelor's degree in nursing, students may take commonly offered courses like  anatomy and physiology, adult nursing, health assessment, and pharmacology, notes the College Board.

Unemployment Rate for Recent Nursing Grads: 4.0 percent*

Potential Career Path: Registered Nurse**

Median Annual Wage: $65,950***
Average for Workers in the 90th Percentile: $96,630
Average for Workers in the 10th Percentile: $44,970

*All unemployment rates of graduates in each field comes from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce's report entitled "Hard Times," which studied unemployment rates for college graduates. Recent college graduates are 22-26 years of age; experienced workers are 30-54 years of age.

**All possible career information is from Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, at (visited May 15, 2012).

***All median, 90th, and 10th percentile salary is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2011 (visited May 15, 2012).

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