5 College Degrees Not Worth the Money

Confucius advised people to "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."

If you have a passion for a specific field, it can make sense to pursue a college degree. In theory, your degree should provide you a competitive advantage and make you more attractive to prospective employers. But with the average student loan debt for U.S. college graduates hovering around $29,000, it's important to pick a degree that not only fulfills your passions — but also makes sense financially. (See also: 8 Cheap Ways to Continue Your Education Without Going Back to School)

Here are five college degrees that don't make sense financially.

1. Sociology

Most people that enter the field of sociology have good intentions and want to help their fellow man. Unfortunately, sociology doesn't offer many well-compensated positions.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in 2022 there will be a total of 3,000 jobs available in this field. To put things in perspective: in 2012, there were 2,200 sociology jobs and approximately 17,000 sociology major graduates.

To complicate matters further, you often need at least a master's degree or PhD in this field to stand out among job applicants. Those who complete only a bachelor's degree are usually limited to lower-paying positions in social services. For example, social workers and chemical dependency counselors have median salaries of about $49,000 each.

2. Craft and Fine Arts

If you think that the term "starving artist" is just a myth, think again.

Let's assume a figure of $37,343 as the average cost for a four-year public liberal arts degree, and one of $121,930 for the same degree at private four-year college. The median annual salary for craft and fine artists is $44,380. This means that you would be better off skipping the degree and perfecting your craft on your own. Or, as The Economist suggests, putting that degree money into a 20-year treasury bill.

3. Education

Teaching is often referred to as one of the most noble professions. It's also often a low-paid one, making the decision to major in education a difficult one for students desirous of a strong return on their college investment. The average 20-year annual return on investment for educators is between -16.7% and 4.6%, depending on the college. So while it's tough to say an investment in such a noble (and necessary) career isn't worth the money, it's important to understand the financial implications.

While the median annual wage of $55,050 for a high school teacher may appear reasonable, it often comes with a low lifetime earnings ceiling. Few teachers earn above $80,000 per year, and many educators effectively work more than the standard 40 hours a week grading assignments, preparing lessons, and meeting with parents and school officials. On top of that, there are often volunteer activities and sports clubs.

If you're looking to make a career in education, it shouldn't be for the money. A study of the self-reported income of U.S. college graduates shows that close to 50% of those with the lowest 20-year net return on education are education majors.

4. Journalism

You have to love the irony: ABC News reports that the cost of a degree to pursue a career as a news analyst, reporter, or correspondent is $52,596, while the median pay is $37,090.

Assuming an annual repayment rate of 10% from that median salary, it would take a degree holder a total of 31.83 years to pay back her four-year journalism degree. Now that's some sobering news!

Given the rise of social media and DIY blogs, you might be be better off leveraging those tools to develop field experience, instead of spending time (and money!) on a journalism degree.

5. Anthropology and Archaeology

According to a report from Georgetown University, the starting annual salary for anthropology and archeology grads is around $28,000. There is room for income growth, but it plateaus at around $47,000 for undergrad degree holders.

To qualify for top-paying anthropology and archaeology jobs, you have to make a considerable investment in both time and money:

  • Most high-paying jobs require a two-year masters degree, some even a PhD.
  • PhD students typically spend 12 to 30 months doing field research for their dissertation.
  • International positions have additional academic and professional requirements.
  • Good jobs require work experience, but recent graduates face a 10.5% unemployment rate.

Even if you overcome all of these obstacles, there are will only be about 8,600 related jobs up for grabs by 2022.

Choosing a career is one of the most important decisions in your life. You shouldn't pursue a college degree based on money alone, but you need to have realistic expectations about the return on your investment in education. Your goal should be to choose a college degree that lets you do what you love… and not starve.

What are other college degrees not worth the money? Share in comments below.

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Guest's picture

I really have to disagree on the journalism degree note. I graduated from a state school about four years ago with a journalism degree (a school with low tuition costs), I had a number of well-paying internships, and I have gone on to work in corporate communications where the technical reporting/writing skills I learned in college (and the clips I got) are highly valued.

Sure, working in newspapers or new media may not pay a lot. But you learn actual marketable skills from that degree. So just go to a college that you can afford, get good work experience and clips, and find a writing job that pays you a worthwhile salary (whether that's the news, marketing, technical writing, or whatever.) No one thinks they're going to get rich by working in news; that is absolutely not why we do it.

Guest's picture

I think they're relying heavily on a journalism degree=journalist position connection for this one. I have a creative writing degree but also specialized in professional communications/PR/grantwriting. I chose to live in a low-paying area and work in nonprofits, but even then my salaries were noticeably higher than my (very reasonable) student loan debt load and it was a very respectable albeit modest start ($40k at 22yo w/ $27k in loans). I'm well-positioned for better-paying careers now since I have developed expertise in other fields and am looking to move to a larger city. But if you'd compare my 'creative writing degree cost' with 'average pay for a nonfiction writer' you'd easily draw the same, sad conclusion.

Guest's picture

I have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and work for the federal government as an Archaeologist. Guess what? Totally worth it. I graduated in Fall 2007, worked seasonally for the US Forest Service for 3 field seasons, then was hired permanently in 2011. I have zero student loan debt left (and if I did, federally backed student loans are forgiven for public servants after 10 years of on-time payments).

My advice, figure out what your end game is. If you love anthropology and want to become a professor and teach? Do it. But there are other options for graduates that have a DESIRE to work in the field that don't include shovel bumming around the country living in a busted up van and making only enough money to feed your face and your van.

Damian Davila's picture

Thank you for sharing your experience with us, A.L.S. That's awesome that you have zero student debt left! If you don't mind telling us, how much of your tuition did you finance with a student loan? Also, how many years did it take you to pay it back?

I ask this because I'm sure that your story would be very encouraging for those that still have a balance left!

Ashley Marcin's picture

These were all my primary areas of interest (writing major, anthropology minor -- husband has a master’s in english education) -- :) Hahah I definitely see all the points, and from a $$$ perspective, it’s definitely spot-on. Though, I’ll say it’s priceless to have a degree in writing that allows me to work from home while we raise our family!

Damian Davila's picture

It's awesome to see a fellow Wisebread writer here. Thanks for dropping by Ashley! Regarding the $$ perspectives, yes this article was seeing things only through a purely financial lens. I agree that flexibility is key for most people nowadays. Have you heard of the Generation Flux concept from Fast Company? I think it describes quite well the modern workforce.