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Department of Civil Engineering
Top 10 Most Valuable College Degrees
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The New American Dream Job Is Pretty Dull

Actuarial science graduates earn six-figure salaries and have a better-than-average unemployment rate.

By Riley Griffin
September 10, 2018

Taking on student debt is a financial risk. Those in the best position to pay it off after graduation are those who study exactly such risks.

Actuarial science, the formal term for the study of insurance, was ranked the most valuable college major, according to a report released on Monday. Actuarial science majors earn an average annual salary of $108,658 and have a better-than-average unemployment rate at 2.3 percent. And at a time when student debt is at a record high, these graduates are less likely to incur the added expense of additional schooling and delayed earning potential. Less than 1 in 4 graduates pursue advanced degrees.

“The actuarial science profession is interesting because students don’t need advanced degrees to gain livable wages, but instead are certified through a series of exams overseen by the industry’s professional organizations,” said analyst Adrian Garcia in an interview. “Students typically pass one to two of these exams while in school and then go on and complete others while working, earning raises and bonuses as they pass.”

The study ranked 162 majors with labor forces of at least 15,000 people based on average annual income, employment status and whether those graduates went on to pursue a higher degree within 12 months. Income accounted for 70 percent of the weighted ranking, unemployment for 20 percent and 10 percent was awarded to career paths that did not demand additional education. The data was derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey.

Recent actuarial science graduates are entering the industry at an opportune moment. The U.S. property and casualty insurance industry took in $18 billion in net profit, even as the country sustained heavy losses from natural catastrophes such as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, according to the National Association for Insurance Commissioners. But that number is expected to increase in 2018 due to favorable interest rates, shows the S&P Global Market Intelligence report. Health-care premiums are also on the rise as many insurers seek double-digit percentage increases in monthly costs for individual medical plans in 2019.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees continue to offer the best postgraduate prospects to college students, the study found. Zoology, nuclear engineering, premedical programs and applied mathematics dominated the five most valuable degrees, offering graduates low rates of unemployment and six-figure salaries.

But the prospect of a high salary doesn’t always win out. Petroleum engineering graduates boast the most lucrative average salary, topping out at $124,448, but fail to crack the top of the list because of an excessively high 7.9 percent unemployment rate.

The only students faring worse than fine arts degree holders are niche fine arts degree holders. Graduates with degrees outside the traditional buckets of art, theater, music or creative writing earn the second-lowest average annual salary of $40,855 and have the highest unemployment rate of any major at a whopping 9.1 percent.

“At the end of the day, you have to balance being practical and following your passion,” Garcia said.


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Department of Civil Engineering | 104 Engineering Science Bldg |Memphis, TN 38152 | Phone: 901/678-2746 | Fax: 901/678-3026 | Last updated: 09/11/2018