Best College Degrees by Salary and Career Satisfaction 2020

Before you get into student debt: Career salary or satisfaction?

It takes 20 years to pay off student loan debt on average. Imagine being saddled with anything, let alone a bill, for 2 decades . . . unfortunately, that’s the reality millions of students are facing today.

A paper by the Centre for Global Higher Education (Gayardon, Callender, Deane, DesJardins, 2018) reviewed research regarding the perceived effects of student loan debt in behavior and life choices and the study shows that individuals with student loan debt tend to delay important milestones such as marriage, owning a house, and starting a family, just to name a few.

The student debt also takes a toll on the mental health and overall life satisfaction of graduates. No improvement seems to be in sight with 2020 data showing the total student loan debt ballooning to $1.68 trillion. In fact, it seems to be getting worse.

Still the right course

Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that college is simply too beneficial to skip in many scenarios. If anything else, it just highlights how important this choice is. While there are career paths that allow entry to someone with a sensational portfolio even without a diploma, there is also no one preventing college students from starting their portfolio early and working on it for four years. A portfolio they can work on under the guidance of experienced professors instead of floundering by themselves. This data from BLS showing college graduates relatively having the lowest rate of unemployment doesn’t hurt the sentiment of how important college education is, either.
Source: BLS

While there might be some voices expressing that college is not important; the data listing the top-paying jobs – all of which requiring a college degree, says otherwise.
Source: BLS

You get only as much as you squeeze

Does choosing a more expensive school automatically translate to gaining better education and career training? Does that in turn translate to an actual benefit in your chosen field? Like with most things, going in without the proper research and with the wrong mindset will increase your debt while losing the perks that come along with a college diploma.

Pay or satisfaction

In a way, college will always be a blind decision. Think about it this way, it’s a decision made to make the next 60 to 80 years of your life better. . . how can you really predict what will happen 80 years in the future?

There’s a lot to consider when choosing a degree or major. So instead of just providing insight on which degree will net the job with the highest pay, we have also included careers with the highest job satisfaction ratings. Different people have different priorities, having two important factors to consider is better than only taking compensation into consideration.

Top pay: Associate’s and Bachelor’s

According to this data from the BLS, there are currently 14 high paying jobs that doesn’t require a Master’s or Doctorate. That being said, a significant number of these (most of the jobs requiring Bachelor’s degree) asks applicants to have job experience before entry. (another reason to work on your portfolios early)

Business, Administration, and Marketing courses:

Occupation Median annual wage, 2017 Requirements
Chief executive $183,270 Bachelor’s
Financial managers $125,080 Bachelor’s
Funeral service managers $78,040 Associate’s
Marketing managers $132,230 Bachelor’s

A fairly sizable cluster containing 29% of the available occupations. While majoring in Mortuary science is no guarantee you’ll make for a good financial manager, it is categorized this way due to college courses offering overlapping variants of business, administration, marketing, and finance courses.

Science and Engineering courses:

Occupation Median annual wage, 2017 Requirements
Architectural and engineering managers $137,720 Bachelor’s
Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers $137,330 Bachelor’s
Petroleum engineers $132,280 Bachelor’s
Air traffic controllers $124,540 Associate’s
Nuclear technicians $80,370 Associate’s

This list has a big knowledge and skill gap between majors as each one is extremely specified. That being said, it’s not automatically a bad thing. First it is a cluster 36% big showing that there are a lot of opportunities in Science and Engineering courses, and second, the occupation “Architectural and engineering managers” imply that it’s a managerial role representing multiple branches of engineering.

There’s also something to be said that an Associate’s degree in Air Traffic Control can lead to a 6 figure salary right off the bat.

Health science courses:

Occupation Median annual wage, 2017 Requirements
Radiation therapists $80,570 Associate’s
Nuclear medicine technologists $75,660 Associate’s
Dental hygienists $74,070 Associate’s
Diagnostic medical sonographers $71,410 Associate’s

One of the biggest categories to look out for due to a lot of the flexibility it offers. Taking ANY of the relevant courses for these occupation means that you get a decent salary only after 2 years of college. Aside from this, you can choose to complete the course as a Bachelor’s degree to be more competitive in the field. And if that’s not enough, any of these courses can serve as pre-med if you choose to get a Doctorate in Medicine. A choice easily available to you and can pay in dividends as most of the highest paid salary occupations require a Doctorate in the field of medicine.

IT courses:

Occupation Median annual wage, 2017 Requirements
Computer and information systems managers $139,220 Bachelor’s

Similar to Architecture and Engineering managers, this occupation also represents the myriad of courses available in IT and what you can expect when you reach a supervisory position after college.

Top pay: Doctorate

The discussion boils down to one sentence: if you want to have a high paying salary then be a doctor. According to the latest data from BLS (, the top 10 highest paying occupations are ALL in the field of medicine. This is a huge incentive to complete a Bachelor’s degree in case you choose to take one of the courses related to the health science cluster.

Top satisfaction is a website that provides a great perspective regarding work satisfaction as it allows employees to voice their opinions regarding their work conditions. So while Anesthesiologists might earn $208,000 after over 10 years of study, the humble Recruitment manager earning $70,000 seems to be the happier of the two.

While there’s little inference made as to how or why these occupations ( seem to have produced more satisfied people, it is nonetheless worth a look especially for people who just want to have more information.

Business, Administration, Human resource, Finance, and Marketing courses:

Occupation Median base salary, 2019 Job satisfaction score (perfect score is 5) Requirements
Recruiting manager $70,000 4.6 Bachelor’s
Sales and Operations Manager $93,000 4.5 Bachelor’s
Marketing assistant $34,000 4.3 Bachelor’s, or experience
Brand manager $85,000 4.3 Bachelor’s
Human resource manager $85,000 4.2 Bachelor’s
Communications manager $80,000 4.2 Bachelor’s
Marketing manager $82,000 4.2 Bachelor’s
Financial consultant $55,000 4.2 Bachelor’s
Enterprise account executive $100,000 4.2 Bachelor’s, or sales experience

Business and related courses seems to be the winner. Not only are the salaries competitive, the course itself is utterly flexible and point towards the best choice considering that people currently in the field seem to be happy.

Science and Engineering courses:

Occupation Median base salary, 2019 Job satisfaction score (perfect score is 5) Requirements
Product engineer $77,500 4.1 Bachelor’s

While the related courses to Science and Engineering are certainly great choices for salary, when satisfaction is now a factor, the occupations available are slim-pickings. Considering that a significant amount of engineering jobs require people to go travel a lot if not to outright do hazardous things, this figure makes more sense.

Health science courses:

Occupation Median base salary, 2019 Job satisfaction score (perfect score is 5) Requirements
Dental hygienist $67,250 4.5 Associate’s

Similar to Science and Engineering; when it comes to satisfaction, the showing here seems thinner compared to viewing the courses only in light of a high salary. At best we can infer that more people die in radiotherapy than in a dentist’s chair and that leads to a depressing working environment non-conducive to satisfaction.

IT, Design (pertaining to web) related courses:

Occupation Median base salary, 2019 Job satisfaction score (perfect score is 5) Requirements
Product designer $100,000 4.5 Bachelor’s
Data scientist $108,000 4.3 Bachelor’s
Software development manager $140,000 4.2 Bachelor’s

The highest paid IT jobs are managerial, we can see that from both data of highest paid and highest satisfaction jobs. The good thing is, non-managerial roles seem to have competitive pay as well.

No specific course required:

Occupation Median base salary, 2019 Job satisfaction score (perfect score is 5) Requirements
Construction manager $75,000 4.3 High school or GED, and 5 years of experience
Customer success manager $65,000 4.2 3 years of experience
HR coordinator $42,550 4.2 2 years of experience
Executive chef $65,000 4.2 2 years of experience
Law clerk $45,456 4.1 Bachelor’s or Law school experience or litigation experience
Sales engineer $90,000 4.1 3 years of experience

Law clerk being the exception, everything else in this category require experience more than degrees; and that’s a good thing. College is highly beneficial, there’s no doubt about it. As competition grows tighter it begins to be even more relevant especially for people who start working on their portfolios early. That being said, it’s not for everyone. There is no institution that can provide universal satisfaction. So for people who are unsure, try to take a look at this list and see if there’s anything that fits.