Top 10 Lowest Paying College Degrees: Bad ROI Associates, Bachelors, Masters & Doctoral Degree Programs

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Regent University
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Worst Paying Degrees.

Curiously, almost all universities charge the same tuition (or close approximations of it) regardless of what one’s major is.  Their position is that all majors are equal — but the data suggest that some majors are more equal than others.  If you’re primarily concerned with earning a good salary for your level of education, avoid these fields like the plague.


We assume that anyone without a degree could get a job in Food Service, and use the pay data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a baseline.  Then, we calculate the net present value (NPV) of a career in food service (essentially, the wages received over a career, discounted by 5% for each year they are in the future).  

We then similarly calculate the NPV of all careers our survey panel identified as likely for the named degrees, and then take a weighted average of the best performing ones.  We subtract the NPV of the career in food service from this average.  This gives us the extra NPV which one earns by virtue of having the degree.

Finally, we divide the extra salary earned by the cost of the degree, resulting in a ROI.  A ROI of 100%, for example, means that on the day you graduate, the present value of your boosted salary was equal to twice the cost of the degree.  (If they were exactly equal, then the ROI would be 0%.)

Note that these are ballpark numbers and, crucially, they do not take into account “opportunity cost” (the fact that you probably have to sacrifice a few years of working while getting your degree).  This, combined with the fact that there are better options for non-degreed people than Food Service, means that the reported returns to education are on the generous side.  It is Top Chef, Bottom Dollar. :(very possible, for example, that the “true” ROI for one’s individual circumstances might be negative for some of the worst options on these lists, such as a BA in Religious Studies.

Ballpark Degree Costs

  • Associate’s Degree: $5,000
  • Bachelor’s Degree: $110,000 (you can get it much cheaper at a public school or via financial aid)
  • Master’s Degree: $160,000
  • Professional Degree: $250,000

General Findings

  • It is very difficult to go wrong with an associate’s degree, at least for the degrees in our data set.  This is primarily because they are very, very inexpensive.  

One caveat: don’t go to culinary school!  Our study methodology caused it to be skipped from the rankings because you can do almost every job a trained chef can without attending culinary school.  If it were present in the rankings, it would end up with a highly negative return on investment for almost all graduates.