10 low-earning college majors

Anthropology leads Kiplinger’s Worst College Majors for Your Career. It combines low pay and high unemployment. Anthro majors are twice as likely as the average college graduate to end up working in retail in a job that doesn’t require a college education.

Unemployment rate: 6.9%
Recent grad employment rate: 10.5%
Median salary: $40,000
Median salary for recent grads: $28,000
Projected job growth for this field, 2010-2020: 21%
Likelihood of working retail: 2.1 times average

Many anthropology graduates “are studying a culture they didn’t expect: the intergenerational American household, as seen from their parents’ couch.”  Nearly a third of recent grads are in low-paying office or sales jobs. Recent graduates average $28,000 per year, less than the median pay for someone with only a high school diploma. Students interested in foreign cultures would do better to major in international relations, Kiplinger suggests.


Fine arts, film/photography, studio arts, graphic design and drama/theater also are low-earnings, high-retail majors.  Also on the list: philosophy and religious studies, sociology, liberal arts and my major, English.

I’d guess that arts and theater majors understand they’re going to struggle to make a living. Do sociology majors know their odds?

Ann Althouse quotes from Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country:

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

I’m not sure writing bad poetry constitutes practicing art or enlarges the soul.

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  1. I do always wonder about that question. There are far, far more anthropology and sociology majors then there are jobs in those fields. They are fascinating areas of study, but few can make a career out of them.

    • When I was in college, 20-ish years ago, sociology was one of the go-to majors for students who were struggling to graduate in something else. The major didn’t have any long pre-req sequences (like engineering and many of the sciences do), so you could decide on a sociology major late in your junior year and still graduate on time. Additionally, there was the perception that the classes weren’t very difficult, so you didn’t run the risk of flunking some class that you needed to graduate.

      This might partially explain why there are more sociology majors than sociology jobs. The degree is one of the “I need to graduate in one year, what can I major in?” choices. Or at least it used to be.

      • Yeah, I would not disagree with that. Psychology seems similar, though it does at least offer more job prospects. An awful lot of people who think they ought to go to college but are not sure why or what they ought to do with themselves there seem to major in those. (Of course, I was a comparative literature major, so I can’t exactly throw stones!)

  2. All I ask is they not show guys with skulls in holes – presumably archaeologists or palaeontologists – when they talk about anthropologists.

    That said, the irony is for the most part the worst fields are the “professional” liberal arts majors. Less tightly focused, more academic majors are generally better off.

    This makes sense; getting an MFA or a degree in drama is a “swing for the fences” move, which either gets you a job in that field or is almost useless otherwise, with little in the way of transferable skills. Someone with a more widely grounded liberal education at least can go to grad school in numerous fields, particularly if they took a few science and math classes along the way.

    • Those science and math classes are key, aren’t they?

      It appears that the epidemic of unemployable college graduates could be addressed by adding science and math prerequisites as freshman “weed-out” courses (or AP credits).  At the very least it would toss out the failures before they had a chance to accumulate lots of debt; if they’re going to be working retail anyway, they’d be much better off (and younger and in a better position to try something else).

  3. Engineer-Poet,

    Well, what classes in math and science would you recommend as weed-out classes in the freshmen year.

    As a first semester college student many years ago, my coursework consisted of English 101, Biology 110, Precalc I/II (5 credit course), Poly Sci 101, and a computer science class.

    Though all of the coursework satisified general/core/or major requirements, what should the minimum level of math and science class passed with a grade of C or better, or optioned out by passing the appropriate CLEP/AP/IB examination prior to being admitted?


    • What courses?  I don’t know.  Ideally, everyone coming out of a university should have some passing facility with the physical sciences, natural sciences, life sciences and the math which ties things together, but translating that into a core curriculum is way beyond the scope of a comment here.

  4. Crimson Wife says:

    Funny, I have several friends who majored in one of these fields who are making decent money 13 years out of college. The anthro major is a risk auditor. The sociology major works in HR. The English major is a professional speechwriter. The graphic design major is head of graphic design at a textbook publisher. The religious studies major is a Reform rabbi and chaplain at a college.

    Not saying that it makes sense to go into a lot of debt pursuing these degrees, but I don’t see them as automatically leading to working some minimum wage retail job while sponging of one’s parents.