What is the Average Starting Salary for College Graduates?

By Matthew Zane
Oct. 27, 2020
Articles In Guide

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You’ve got your degree and you’re ready to enter the world of work. Now the important question: how much can you expect to earn right out of college?

It’s no secret that average starting salaries for college grads coming into entry-level positions depend on what you majored in, where you went to school, and where you live.

College graduates, saddled with mountains of debt, have good reason to ask the question “what is my diploma worth?”

Expectations vs. Reality

College is the time and place for optimism. Unfortunately, that optimism can lead to some unrealistic expectations when it comes to salary.

One survey of 1,000 undergraduates found that students expect to earn an average of $57,964/year right out of college. A recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the average starting salary for the class of 2019 is $53,889. In other words, students are earning about 8% less than they expect to out of college.

Expectations among engineering and humanities students were the most realistic, while business majors were the widest from the mark, overestimating their starting salaries by a whopping 31% (sorry, business majors). Students studying computer science sold themselves the shortest, underestimating their early-career earnings by 16%.

College Student’s Job Priorities

Even more than big paychecks, college students say they value excellent insurance plans the most. A competitive salary was next on the list.

Strangely, college students valued a retirement plan with high company match more highly than student loan repayment assistance – these Gen Zers sure do think long term!

Other things, like having a flexible schedule, a fun work environment, and plenty of paid time off all were all considered low importance benefits. While students may be overly-optimistic about their starting salaries, those of Generation Z seem to be more pragmatic than their millennial counterparts, ever-enamored by an office with a ping pong table.

The Full Scoop: Average Salary for College Graduates

The overall average starting salary for the Class of 2019 is $53,889, according to NACE’s report. That represents a 5.8% increase from the average starting salary of $50,944 for the Class of 2018.

Unfortunately, with the economy taking a hit due to the global pandemic, the unemployment rate of bachelor’s degree graduates between the ages of 20-24 is at 13%, much higher than the 7.2% unemployment rate of August 2019 and the country’s overall unemployment rate of 8.4%. Moving forward, this might increase employers’ leverage when negotiating with entry-level applicants.

What field students choose to study has a big impact on their earning potential, and some fields have seen bigger wage growth than others. Broken down into broad categories, here’s the data on average starting salaries:

  • Computer Science. $76,986 up 7.8% from 2018

  • Engineering. $70,219 up 5.4% from 2018

  • Mathematics and statistics. $66,942 up 8.5% from 2018

  • Business. $54,399 up 4.5% from 2018

  • Health sciences. $53,425 up 2.6% from 2018

  • Social sciences. $50,099 up 7.1% from 2018

No matter what you major in, a person with a bachelor’s degree earns an average salary 67% higher than someone with only a high school diploma, according to a study by Northeastern University.

Highest Paying Bachelor’s Degree Majors

It’s no surprise that degrees in STEM are the best-positioned for big paychecks right out of college. But we’ll take a closer look at which majors, specifically, offer the highest starting pay.

These data look at salaries in early career, with 0-5 years of work experience, so they’re likely higher than what a typical college graduate could expect on his or her first salary offer.

  1. Petroleum Engineering: $94,500

  2. Physician Assistant Studies: $91,100

  3. Electric Engineering Computer Science (EECS): $88,000

  4. Pharmacy: $79,600

  5. Metallurgical Engineering: $78,100

  6. Operations Research: $77,900

  7. Computer Science (CS) Physics: $77,300

  8. Nuclear Engineering Technology (NET): $76,900

  9. Petroleum Land Management: $76,800

  10. Welding Engineering: $76,300

Note that the above are just salaries for “early-career” and that the top ten highest-paid majors look slightly different once you reach “mid-career.” Notable additions to the list for mid-career pay are:

  1. Applied Economics and Management: $140,000 ($58,900 in early career)

  2. Political Economy: $136,200 ($57,600 in early career)

  3. Actuarial Mathematics: $135,100 ($63,300 in early career)

  4. Electrical Power Engineering: $134,700 ($72,400 in early career)

  5. Business Analysis: $133,200 ($57,200 in early career)

  6. Aeronautics Astronautics: $131,600 ($73,100 in early career)

In other words, don’t fret if your early-career earnings aren’t as high as you expected – some majors shine later on down the road and eventually overtake the high earning majors in earnings potential.

Lowest Paying Bachelor’s Degree Majors

Looking at the same data, graduates with these majors earned the least in their early career:

  1. Speech Drama: $28,300

  2. Voice Opera: $32,500

  3. Medical Assisting: $32,500

  4. Rehabilitation Services: $32,800

  5. Painting Printmaking: $32,800

  6. Developmental Psychology: $33,200

  7. Child Family Studies: $33,400

  8. Early Childhood Education: $33,500

  9. Vocational Rehabilitation: $33,700

  10. Ministry: $34,000

Don’t be too scared off by low starting salary numbers for your major.

Speech Drama majors, for instance, might be the lowest earners out of college, but by mid-career, the average pay for a Speech Drama major is $80,400. Also, remember that you can’t put a price on working in a field you love and are truly passionate about.

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life” – Mark Twain

Know Your Worth

Knowledge is power – when it comes time to find a job and figure out what a fair salary is, consult an online salary calculator. Tools on websites like ours can help you determine what people in your same position (recent college graduate, zero or little experience) living in your area are getting paid.

Additionally, you can also reach out to your university’s career office to get a better idea of what sort of salary you can expect out of college. Contacting recent graduates with the same major as you through your school’s alumni network can also shine a light on what things are really like on the ground.

Want to boost your starting salary offers? Doing an internship in your field can help you stand out from applicants who have zero work experience whatsoever. You’ll be considered more valuable since you’ve proven that you can handle a “real job.” Even if you volunteered during your college experience, that’s going to give you a competitive edge.

Salary Isn’t Everything

College graduates are smart enough to prioritize excellent insurance plans over a competitive salary, so they already know that the number on your paycheck doesn’t tell the whole story. There are other forms of compensation, and the value of these depends on what you, as an individual, find most appealing. For example, base salary doesn’t take into account:

  • Health insurance

  • Paid time off (PTO)

  • Life insurance

  • Sales commission

  • Stock options

  • Bonuses

  • Overtime wages

  • Non-cash benefits (meals, use of an on-site gym, use of company car, etc.)

  • Retirement benefits (401(k) matching, pension plans, etc.)

  • Developmental/educational programs

  • Advancement opportunities

In other words, don’t just scoff when you see a salary offer lower than you expected; take a look at what else they’re offering.

Some things, like insurance, are easier to assign a dollar value to, while the opportunity to develop your skills in an educational program may be harder to price. Everyone has different priorities in the workplace – consider what these things are worth, both at a market level and a personal one, when deciding where to work.

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Matthew Zane

Matthew Zane is the lead editor of Zippia's How To Get A Job Guides. He is a teacher, writer, and world-traveler that wants to help people at every stage of the career life cycle. He completed his masters in American Literature from Trinity College Dublin and BA in English from the University of Connecticut.

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