Americans' rankings of 40 college majors

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
March 23, 2023, 7:24 PM GMT+0

Choosing a college major is a pivotal decision for many students, shaping not only their career trajectory, but also their overall well-being. A recent YouGov poll asked Americans to evaluate 40 college majors on three dimensions: earnings potential, personal interest, and well-roundedness. The results show that the majors that Americans view as most lucrative aren't usually the subjects they are most interested in or view as making a person the most well-rounded. History, education, and sociology rank highly in terms of interest and well-roundedness, but near the bottom of majors ranked by Americans' perception of their earning potential. Civil engineering, marketing, and data science, on the other hand, are seen as especially lucrative, yet few see them as very interesting or well-rounded. There are a handful of majors, however, including business and psychology, which score well in all three metrics.

Factors to consider when choosing a major

When asked the extent to which college students should consider eight factors when selecting a major, majorities considered all to be at least somewhat important. There is a wide range, though, in the shares who see each as "very important," with a student's level of interest in a major ranking the highest (62% say it is very important), followed by how relevant it is to their career goals (54%) and how good they are at the subject (48%). Next is the major's job placement rate (47%) and its earnings potential (42%). The three factors least likely to be viewed as very important are how much the major allows someone to contribute to society (31%), how difficult or demanding it is (26%), and how well-rounded it makes them (22%).

Overall ranking of majors

The poll also asked Americans to rate each of 40 college majors on three metrics that correspond to three of the eight factors whose importance was polled about:

  • Its earnings potential, relative to other majors (above, below, and about average)
  • How personally interesting it would be to study (very, somewhat, or not interesting)
  • How well-rounded it makes a person (more, less, or about as well-rounded as average)

To calculate an overall ranking of each major, we ordered them based on the share of Americans who said each major rates highly in each of the three areas (earnings, interest, and well-roundedness). We then averaged these three rankings to produce an overall ranking.

The majors that ranked highest overall in the three categories are:

  • T-1. Business
  • T-1. Psychology
  • 3. Engineering
  • 4. Architecture
  • 5. Nursing
  • 6. International relations
  • 7. Computer science
  • 8. History
  • 9. Criminal justice
  • 10. Mechanical engineering

The majors that ranked the lowest overall in the three categories are:

  • 40. Kinesiology and physical therapy
  • 39. Performing arts
  • 38. Statistics
  • 37. Speech/language pathology
  • 36. Public health
  • 35. Marketing
  • 34. Nutrition
  • 33. Social work
  • 32. Data science
  • T-31. Art
  • T-31. Anthropology

We also measured the effect of ranking the majors after removing respondents who said they were "not sure" in response to each question. This had a negligible effect on how nearly all majors were ranked. There was one big exception: anthropology. When excluding people who were unsure, anthropology moved nine spots up in the overall ranking — because it was among the majors that the largest share of respondents said they were "not sure" about.

Ranking majors by anticipated earnings

As the job market becomes increasingly competitive and the cost of attending college rises, many students are taking into consideration the expected salary associated with various college majors. While our survey does not provide data on the actual earnings potential of majors, it does shed light on Americans' perceptions of majors' earnings potential. The question asked was, "Compared to majoring in other college subjects, would you say that majoring in each of the following leads to…?" Response options included "above average earnings," "about average earnings," and "below average earnings."

Majors Americans are most likely to say lead to above average earnings:

  1. Engineering
  2. Electrical engineering
  3. Computer science
  4. Mechanical engineering
  5. Civil engineering
  6. Architecture
  7. Business
  8. Finance and accounting
  9. Chemistry
  10. Data science

Ranking majors by personal interest

Engagement with course material is considered by many to be essential components of a fulfilling college experience. To find out how interesting Americans think it would be to study each major we posed the question, "How interesting would you personally find it to major in each of the following?" Response options included "very interesting," "somewhat interesting," and "not interesting."

Majors Americans are most likely to say they personally would find very interesting:

  1. History
  2. Psychology
  3. Criminal justice
  4. Computer science
  5. Biology
  6. Business
  7. Education
  8. Environmental science
  9. Sociology
  10. Earth sciences

Ranking majors by well-roundedness

Being well-rounded refers to having a diverse set of skills, knowledge, and experiences that allow one to thrive in different situations. When it comes to choosing a college major, prioritizing well-roundedness may mean looking for programs that offer a broad range of courses or opportunities to develop a variety of skills and perspectives.

For each major in our list, our poll posed the question, "Compared to majoring in other college subjects, would you say that majoring in each of the following makes a person…?" The response options included "more well-rounded," "about as well-rounded," and "less well-rounded."

Majors Americans are most likely to say make a person more well-rounded than average:

  1. Foreign languages
  2. Nursing
  3. International relations
  4. Psychology
  5. History
  6. Education
  7. Business
  8. Sociology
  9. Architecture
  10. Philosophy

Which majors would Americans consider today?

We also asked Americans which majors they personally would consider if they were enrolled in college today. Seven of the 10 majors that Americans are most likely to select in this question are also among the 10 most highly ranked majors overall, according to earnings potential, interest, and well-roundedness. (On average Americans say they would consider 4.5 of the 40 majors, so consideration of a major hardly meant surely picking it.) And, of the 10 majors that Americans were least likely to select, six were among the 10 majors ranked lowest overall.

Majors Americans are most likely to say they would consider if they were in college today:

  1. Computer science
  2. History
  3. Business
  4. Engineering
  5. Psychology
  6. Criminal justice
  7. English
  8. Finance and accounting
  9. Electrical engineering
  10. Nursing

Majors Americans are least likely to say they would consider if they were in college today:

  1. Speech/language pathology
  2. Statistics
  3. Kinesiology and physical therapy
  4. Philosophy
  5. Performing arts
  6. Physics
  7. Chemistry
  8. Liberal arts
  9. Anthropology
  10. Art

While relatively similar shares of men and women express an interest in certain popular subjects, such as English and business, other subjects are more likely to be considered by one gender or the other. Nursing, psychology, and social work are more common choices among women than among men. Majors involving engineering and computer science, on the other hand, are selected more often by men as subjects they'd consider studying than among women.

— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article.

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: The poll was conducted among 2,000 U.S. adult citizens on two separate surveys conducted from December 19 - 28, 2022 and December 20 - 30, 2022, with each survey conducted among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Each respondent was asked about a randomly selected sample of 15 of the 40 majors on each poll. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 2.4%.

Image: Adobe Stock (gfdunt)

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