The College Degrees Least Likely To Pay Off Financially

College is a phenomenal opportunity to grow into the person you want to become. Both professionally and socially, the years you spend in collegiate academics help shape you into someone that's more knowledgeable, confident, and mature than the individual you were when you first stepped on campus. College students not only gain the responsibility to chart their own path forward, but they are gifted with a virtually infinite list of possibilities when creating that plan.

College majors are a great example of this unique flexibility. The University of Washington offers the most diversity in this realm, with 227 majors available for students to choose from. While popular majors include Business, Health, Social Sciences and History, and Engineering, others like Psychology, and Journalism are routinely ranked among the top in enrollment figures, too. Part of the experience revolves around growing as an individual, but another side of the coin certainly hinges on the ability to secure a great job after graduation. Conversely, there certainly are a wide range of jobs you can secure without having to go to college. Degree programs can vary wildly in terms of future financial returns, and everyone's experience with the classroom and job market will be unique. Even so, these majors have consistently proven to be some of the worst investments (especially when considering the addition of student loan repayments that many will factor in) when considering just the earning power they unlock.

Early Childhood Education (and many other education degrees)

One of the most obvious educational pathways available that severely underperform financially is education aimed at educating. Teaching degrees of any sort return drastically small paychecks for most earners when compared with other degree programs offered by major universities. It's worth noting that there is quite good money to be found in the world of collegiate teaching. However, college educators require a master's degree and specialized skills at a minimum with a large portion attaining doctoral training in their given field before even being considered for a post. College professors are thought of as experts in the things they lecture about while K12 teachers enjoy constantly increasing workloads and pay that many call criminally unacceptable to go along with a severely diminished level of respect and prestige.

Teachers, especially those working in early childhood education, are some of the lowest-paid professionals in any field. Educators working with younger age groups can expect median salaries that start around $40,000 per year when they first enter the workforce, but their earning potential progresses slowly through their career as they build additional subject knowledge and experience in the field. While teaching is not a financially fruitful career path, teachers don't enter this segment of the workforce primarily for a paycheck. This is a degree program that's unlikely to pay off financially but it serves as a calling for millions of Americans hoping to make a difference in young learners' lives.

Theology and other religious studies degrees

In the same way that educators don't see the fruits of their labor borne out in dollars and cents, theologians and other religious practitioners can't expect to make a heap of cash, either. Theology degrees help bring practitioners closer to a career working in spirituality, and this is yet another career that acts as more of a calling to serve something other than the almighty dollar. Even so, it's worth noting that theology degrees are perhaps the worst financial investments someone can make if they're looking strictly at earning potential right out of school.

If you're working towards a degree in theology, you can expect a median salary of about $36,000, even five years after earning your credentials and taking part in a graduation ceremony. However, there is a wrinkle to this educational path and career that isn't commonly found elsewhere. Those looking to serve their church may find financial support as a standard part of the package. In lieu of a higher salary that might lend itself to finding an apartment and managing a variety of routine bills with a bit more leeway, clergy members across religious persuasions often take a squat salary with the addition of housing or housing support and other perks that would otherwise require more robust personal earnings.


Psychology is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to understanding earnings potential in the years following graduation. Fully-fledged psychologists command a respectable salary, but in order to enter into counseling and mental health professions like this you'll need to commit to additional schooling beyond your bachelor's degree. A psychology degree is therefore an entryway into further study that eventually unlocks higher earnings potential. However, the degree itself isn't likely to pay off financially if you don't intend to use it as a springboard or can't get into a master's or PhD program as a result of poor test scores or low grades.

Psychology degrees on their own act as an interesting all-around learning experience that might serve you well in general business settings, but it won't provide the framework for specialized workplace requirements or knowledge. A psychology degree can feel incredibly rewarding as you progress through the coursework, but leaving school you'll take away a wealth of knowledge and little in the way of concrete expertise or skills. Psychology degrees offer quite a bit of upside if leveraged efficiently, but the degree itself offers entry-level median salaries of $37,000, placing them among some of the least financially valuable educational experiences available.

Social Work

Social workers exist in a thankless profession. Social work is a very difficult job and many consider it to be emotionally draining, physically exhausting, and financially unfulfilling. Social workers come in many flavors, but they generally work with individuals and families that exist in the most vulnerable states of being across their communities. Social workers visit clients, attempt to provide assistance and support, and sometimes have to make difficult calls to actively intervene in an individual's life or a family's routine.

Social workers are sometimes seen as the enemy by those they are trying desperately to help, and they often find themselves subjected to vitriolic language and desperate situations while on the job. But social work is an immensely fulfilling and service-oriented duty that many are called to perform. People working in social services can expect early career salaries landing around $37,000 per year. While there is a bit more upward mobility in this industry than in education and other fields with low-paying entry points, social workers shouldn't expect to see a major windfall as they progress through their careers, at least not financially.

Public Policy and Public Services

Public policy, public administration, social and public services, and any other degree type with similar sounding titles are great options that will set college students up for work in a variety of government service arenas. Public policy education can help you get started in all kinds of careers in local government as well as in larger administrative bodies at the state or federal level. These types of degree programs can be beneficial for people who want to work in advocacy roles as well. Community organizing, outreach work, and other types of employment that help to make life better for the people of a passionate advocate's community can be highly fulfilling and may often be kickstarted through educational programs in public service, administration, or policy.

However, these types of jobs aren't typically very lucrative when it comes to the financials. Public administration and its ilk offer an average salary hovering around $47,000 per year. Moreover, for anyone working in government service, a long career can result in numerous pay bumps that will often come in a structured format and won't see you increase your earning power with very much speed or result in any particularly large salary over the long term.

Foreign Languages

Foreign languages are a fantastic addition to any course of study. Engaging with a foreign language helps open your mind to new experiences and cultural phenomena. Studying Spanish, French, or even something like Russian or Arabic will give you a new appreciation for the cultural realities of the people with whom you share the world. Not only will you be more readily able to communicate with a new cadre of people in your local community, but studying foreign languages unlocks additional points of mutual understanding. People who major in a foreign language, however, aren't likely to see a dramatic return on their financial investment and substantial time commitment.

Early career workers with degrees in foreign languages average a salary of around $43,000. While work in translation services and other career spaces that require a firm grasp of specific language skills can be highly interesting, the reality is that adding a new language to your resume and repertoire and then pursuing it as a primary degree program doesn't place you drastically higher up the pecking order when it comes time to get paid. If you're looking for work domestically, you're at a notable disadvantage when competing against native speakers of the language in question. An American who grew up speaking Spanish in the home and pursued an undergraduate degree in something other than the language will have both fluency in English and Spanish and a degree in something else that adds to their value as a potential employee.

Visual and Performing Arts, and Drama and Theater degrees

Artistic degree programs can help hone skills for those passionate about performance art. They can be satisfying and rewarding educational experiences that offer enjoyment, fulfillment, and a mastery of your chosen art form. The reality is that there's quite a bit of subtlety required to create breathtaking art in any medium. Layman viewers simply fail to comprehend much of these nuances that trained performers and artists have spent years developing. Going to school for a degree in an artistic field can certainly bring you closer to your dreams in the performance industry.

But artistic degrees often fail to translate into substantial salaries. Artists are like many other professions on this list in that the work is something that people love to do, regardless of the pay that's attached to it. Generally speaking, graduates holding these types of degrees can expect a salary of roughly $40,000 per year shortly after leaving school. But, for those willing to branch out and work in other artistic disciplines that may be a little farther afield, visual artists can leverage their training and background to land other artistic design-type roles that often pay around $10,000 more per year. For the extremely lucky (and talented), formal training mixed in with other attributes could result in highly lucrative film, stage, or television roles. But, "long shot" doesn't even come close to describing this outcome for the vast majority of performers, unfortunately.

Hospitality and Culinary Arts

Hospitality, culinary arts, and leisure management degrees can offer training to help you break into a marketplace flush with job opportunities. There are restaurants, hotels, and all kinds of hospitality industry businesses found in abundance across the United States and the world. Even with a great selection of prospective employers at your fingertips, formal education in these fields isn't typically a lucrative endeavor. Early career salaries average around $38,800 across the board with a rise to about $52,900, on average, as workers enter their mid-career years. In addition to somewhat pedestrian earnings potential, people working in the hospitality industry often find themselves constantly on the go. The name of the game is to serve the needs of clients, and this can see employees working overtime, running around throughout the day, and routinely problem-solving as new challenges creep into the fold. On a more positive note, some service industry workers leverage their expertise into jobs in wonderful destinations or roles that are intensely demanding but yield fabulous tips. These features can't be overlooked, but they aren't the typical experience in this field.

Jobs in these industries can be mentally toiling and physically demanding. For those interested in a career of service to others, hospitality can be a good path to follow, but those who can consider it should understand that earnings potential may be severely limited over the long term.

Mass Media and other Media Studies degrees

Media is a unique field in that early career earners take home relatively low wages while mid-career and those with quite a bit of experience may find themselves earning considerably more. Similarly, the media landscape is a constantly shifting space in which early adopters that break the mold with new formats may ultimately reap significant financial rewards, regardless of their experience in the field or educational attainment. There are plenty of ways to skin the cat when it comes to working in media, so to speak.

Even with plenty of mobility on offer, a degree in mass media or media studies isn't a guaranteed winner, and those who pursue more typical opportunities in the industry will typically be looking at earnings that start around $40,000 per year. Moreover, a degree in this field isn't necessary when it comes to creating your own outlets for producing and distributing media content. As a result, a degree in these kinds of areas may not be useful at all to someone looking to work in this space. With all that being said, formal education in media studies and mass media comes out as sort of a mixed bag. For people looking to break into traditional management roles or production teams within a traditional media space, formal education can be a powerful gateway opportunity. But others might feel that paying for this education is largely worthless as they pursue their dreams.

Liberal Arts

A liberal arts degree is a sort of generalized program of study that will result in a bachelor's achievement but won't prepare you to leverage specific and specialized skills or knowledge that may be required in the job market. Liberal arts degrees offer quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to scheduling coursework and mapping out the things that are important in your education. Students pursuing this type of generalized degree program may be able to lean heavily into things like identity studies, history, languages, or even hard-skill coursework such as programming or statistical analysis. However valuable the learning experiences are for you personally, the name of your degree won't turn any heads when you start to apply for jobs. As well, the lack of specialization often acts as a barrier in your early career development process. Liberal arts degree holders can typically expect to earn salaries starting at around $40,000 per year.

With more freedom over the specifics of your coursework, you may be able to tailor your education to certain learning objectives that you have for yourself, but these may not always translate into a high-quality salary both as you enter the job market and later on in your career progression.


Philosophy is another degree program that will open your mind up to a wealth of new ways of thinking. Philosophers concern themselves with the intersection of big-picture questions and the mundane of the everyday. They think about everything from ethics in politics and the workplace to public policy and social cooperation, and even the existentialism of the world we inhabit. On the surface, philosophy is a fascinating discipline and one that could see you engaging as a learner throughout your entire life — even as a well-seasoned professional in the field at some point in the future. But philosophy can be a difficult road to traverse for those looking to find a stable and sizable paycheck.

Philosophy is a difficult one to quantify when it comes to degree programs and their relative strength in creating financial returns. Philosophy is one of the highest-earning degree programs you can pursue in the humanities space, and mid- and late-career workers often enjoy decent salaries and solid job security, especially for professors angling to find tenure at their university. However, the road is somewhat rocky for early career philosophy graduates, with average salaries hovering near the bottom of the stack at around $42,000 per year.

Law and Criminal Justice

Much like psychology, law studies and criminal justice degrees are expensive education that don't return much financially if you don't pair them with law school or other continuing education opportunities. Working in the legal field — on any side of the law — can net a sizable income for those who invest their time, energy, and money in this lengthy educational pursuit. Attorneys make particularly good money, but not until they've expended a huge effort in studying for the LSATs, succeeding in the rigors of law school, and then passing the Bar exam. After all this effort, new graduates still have to find a job at a law firm or in some other legal capacity to cash in on all their hard work.

For those who don't follow this path and opt to only chase after a bachelor's degree, work may be more limited and salaries will often seem stifling in comparison. Without the additional training of law school, you may find yourself working as a paralegal or in some other law-adjacent profession that pays far less than the lawyers you interact with. Average salaries fall around $45,000 in legal professions outside of the title of attorney.