Want a degree that leads to high pay and job security? Don’t pick one of these.
Millions of Americans lost their jobs in 2020, thanks to COVID-19, and with all these unexpected furloughs, it might seem that having some sort of degree is crucial if you want to secure your future.
But many college majors are less helpful than others. They’ll keep you from ever earning anything close to six figures while giving you little or no chance of seeing a return on that major investment you made in your college education.
These are the 15 most useless degrees out there, according to a study from Kiplinger using salary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.
Note that for all majors, the median starting salary is $45,400 and the median midcareer salary is $78,300.
- Starting salary: $43,700
- Midcareer salary: $86,400
Face it: The “Mad Men” era is long gone. While companies value good marketing skills, they may not be too impressed with an advertising degree nowadays.
It’s not enough to learn about advertising and its history — the good and the bad. You have to have a keen eye for what sells, a near-limitless capacity to be creative and an ability to connect with target audiences.
The job market for marketing pros is an insanely competitive one, and employers are seeking candidates with a sophisticated and multidisciplinary skill set.
Instead, study: marketing or public relations.
Knowing little more than how to make print ads doesn’t cut it in today’s market. Instead, creative professionals need to understand market research, account management and PR.
14. Animal science
- Starting salary: $38,300
- Midcareer salary: $63,000
Animal science focuses on the study of livestock. It’s a degree that will prepare you to work on improving farming and breeding practices, to meet the needs of a hungry world.
Since agriculture is a trillion-dollar industry in the U.S., this major may seem like a good choice for a freshly minted college grad looking for secure work.
But the pay is relatively modest, and jobs are few. The U.S. had just 6,100 animal scientists in 2016, and that number is likely to grow to only 6,400 by 2026, says the BLS.
Instead, study: food science and nutrition.
So, you want a career that will make a difference at the dinner table? Studying more than just animals will give you wider options and potentially a better return on your investment.
13. Exercise science
- Starting salary: $39,500
- Midcareer salary: $52,700
Exercise science explores athleticism, personal training and the workings of the human body. Given the growth of the fitness and wellness industries, this major may seem like a sprint toward job security as a trainer.
But if you’re a fitness buff, you may want to reconsider. Though demand for trainers is growing at a faster-than-average rate, the pay isn’t very muscular.
And, you may have to work nights, weekends or holidays, the BLS points out.
Instead, study: physical or occupational therapy, or kinesiology (the science of movement).
An advanced degree or a more specialized course of study will offer more lucrative job prospects. But if personal training is your goal, skip the formal education. Personal training certification and on-the-job experience are enough to net you great opportunities.
12. Fashion merchandising
- Starting salary: $42,900
- Midcareer salary: $72,500
Fashion merchandisers work with brands to develop marketing campaigns, create dynamic displays in stores and manage clothing buying cycles.
The goal is to maximize sales by understanding what the consumer wants and needs. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you have a great appreciation for fashion.
Unfortunately, job prospects are looking a little threadbare. If you choose fashion merchandising as your major, expect to face fierce competition, years of measly compensation, and difficulty transferring your know-how to something else.
Instead, study: fashion business.
If your love of fashion is undeniable, consider focusing on the business side of the industry. Design houses need marketing managers, trends forecasters, supply managers and even finance people, and those jobs can offer more security and upward mobility.
11. Religious studies
- Starting salary: $41,700
- Midcareer salary: $63,800
Though you may feel a calling to spend your days poring over spiritual texts, religious studies is one of those majors where there are few job prospects other than to become a professor in that field.
You may not be able to do much with a religious studies degree outside of academia. That said, even the academic jobs are sparse.
Positions for religion teachers at colleges and universities grew by just 0.8% from 2017 to 2018, about half the rate of overall job growth, according to BLS data.
Instead, study: criminology, business administration or English as part of a double major with religious studies.
Diversifying your knowledge will open more doors and offer you more job flexibility. You’ll learn critical thinking, how to interpret difficult texts, and other skills that you will make you more marketable in the nonacademic job market.
10. Hospitality and tourism
- Starting salary: $40,500
- Midcareer salary: $66,000
When you major in hospitality and tourism, you learn the ins and outs of working at a travel agency or behind the desk at a hotel.
But travel agent jobs have been disappearing thanks to the popularity of Expedia, Kayak and other booking websites. By 2026, there will be 12% fewer agents than there were in 2016, says the BLS.
To land work as a hotel clerk, all it takes is a high school diploma. Having a formal degree in hospitality and tourism rarely brings any bump in the usual pay for desk clerks, who earn a median of $25,000 a year.
Instead, study: hotel management.
Hotel managers earn far more than clerks, and you’ll pick up skills that are transferable to other managerial roles. Alternatively, you could major in economics with a specialization in travel, which would give you even more options.
9. Fashion design
- Starting salary: $43,800
- Midcareer salary: $80,500
Fashion design requires a unique combination of artistic ability and practical sewing skills. But having a passion for fashion isn’t enough — you also need raw design talent, which is something they can’t teach you at school.
Furthermore, the fashion world is notoriously competitive, and getting a job in this field is based largely on who you know, not what you know.
Plus, much of the fashion industry is concentrated in New York and Los Angeles. So even if you do manage to land a job, you may have to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Instead, study: fashion business.
As with fashion merchandising, plenty of other avenues into the fashion world — including jobs in trends forecasting and supply management — are just as fulfilling as fashion design. And, they can be even more enriching, financially speaking.
8. Paralegal studies
- Starting salary: $40,400
- Midcareer salary: $54,100
Paralegals are skilled law professionals who often do a lot of grunt work for lawyers and associates. They read through old case studies, prepare affidavits, organize efficient filing systems and help attorneys prepare for trials.
But they don’t need a four-year degree to enter their field. All it takes is an associate degree or paralegal certification to become a paralegal. In some cases, a talented legal secretary may even be promoted to a paralegal position.
Pursuing paralegal or pre-law studies can be a surefire way to pigeonhole your skills and limit your marketability as a job candidate.
Instead, study: criminology or philosophy.
If you’re set on reaching law school, consider any other undergrad degree besides pre-law. Philosophy or criminology will help you hone your writing, logic and debate skills and show you how to interpret complex texts and concepts.
7. Art history
- Starting salary: $42,900
- Midcareer salary: $66,300
While many people unfairly dunk on liberal arts degrees, art history may be most deserving of derision.
That’s because art history is a very niche field that offers few prospects outside of academic employment and very little in the way of transferable skills.
Jobs in art curation or restoration require education at the master’s or even doctorate level, and even then, the competition is fierce.
Instead, study: English or classics, and minor in art history.
Just because an art history major may not be the idea, that doesn’t mean you have to enroll in the nearest STEM program. Go ahead and study arts and humanities, but make sure you gain a breadth of transferable skills that can apply to a host of other industries.
- Starting salary: $39,400
- Midcareer salary: $60,500
Fine arts majors face an unemployment rate after graduation of 5.6% and a staggering 58.4% rate of underemployment — in low-paying or low-skill jobs — according to census data reported by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
It’s pretty dismal, especially when you consider that annual tuition and fees at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design cost nearly $53,000. For perspective, that’s about $1,000 more than Harvard.
You’d need to be making $250,000 a year by midcareer to get a good return on your art school investment. Are you prepared to deal with years of hefty student loan payments?
Instead, study: marketing or biology.
An art degree can leave you with little in the way of transferable skills. A marketing degree might be more useful, even if you’re just marketing your own artwork. A biology degree could open the door to a high-paying job as a medical illustrator.
- Starting salary: $37,300
- Midcareer salary: $60,200
Those bitten by the acting bug, beware: You may love performing, but majoring in theater can seriously limit your job and pay prospects. Opportunities are slim, and you may never get that big break.
Even if you do manage to eke out a career in performance, you have to be comfortable with unemployment between gigs and unstable job prospects. Many theater grads end up in office work or retail.
The salary comparison site PayScale puts musical theater near the bottom of a list of 403 degrees ranked for pay, and says only 40% of those grads believe their work makes the world a better place.
Instead, study: business administration, political science or education.
The ability to speak well, memorize a lot of text and learn new information on the fly will serve you well in business, politics and even teaching. Consider a degree in one of those fields while keeping performance as a side gig.
4. Graphic design
- Starting salary: $41,700
- Midcareer salary: $63,500
Ever hear of a graphic designer who’s a self-made millionaire? There’s a joke that goes: What’s the best way to make $1 million as a graphic designer?
Start with $2 million.
Despite the boom in digital media, you may find that studying graphic design is similar to other arts majors: It’ll enrich your life, but not necessarily your bank account.
Instead, study: computer science or human-computer interaction.
If you’re inclined towards the arts, computer science may seem like a total 180 move. But companies developing cool new digital products are looking for user-experience and user-interface (UX/UI) designers — jobs that pay more than $90,000 a year, on average, says Glassdoor.
3. Culinary arts
- Starting salary: $39,200
- Midcareer salary: $58,800
Love to whip up interesting concoctions in the kitchen? If you think you might like to turn pro as a chef, you may have your eye on a culinary arts degree.
But culinary schools can’t teach you two things you’ll need to succeed: talent and a strong work ethic. It may be smarter to start by working as a line cook, to build up experience and contacts, rather than saddling yourself with a mountain of school debt.
Chefs with culinary arts degrees earn only 2% to 11% more than their peers whose formal schooling ended at high school, says a report from Eater.
Instead, study: finance or business administration.
If you see yourself opening your own restaurant one day, you’ll want to develop a knowledge of finance. You’ll find that accounting and bookkeeping skills are important parts of the recipe for restaurant success.
2. Radio and television
- Starting salary: $39,600
- Midcareer salary: $64,400
Traditional broadcasting is fading out. Opportunities in radio, local TV and cable are scarcer than they used to be, and not as lucrative.
Job security in this field is eroding faster than you can say, “Good morning, Vietnam!”
Mass media degrees have the highest unemployment rate of all majors: 7.8%, according to the New York Fed report mentioned earlier. And, more than 55% of graduates are underemployed, in jobs not worthy of their skills and talents.
Instead, study: marketing.
Though today’s media consumers may opt for Spotify over conventional radio, good writers and people who can communicate well are still in high demand. Study marketing alongside broadcast or digital media, to learn skills better adapted to the 21st century.
- Starting salary: $41,200
- Midcareer salary: $61,700
That smartphone in your pocket is one reason Kiplinger has named this degree the worst on its list. The cameras in today’s phones can allow anyone to take professional-quality photos.
You don’t need a photography degree to become a photographer, but if you want to make a living at it, expect not-so-great pay and tough competition in a dwindling field.
By 2026, the U.S. will have more than 8,000 fewer photographer jobs than there were in 2016, says the BLS.
Instead, study:: business adminstration, marketing.
While a photography degree may teach you artistic concepts, you’ll need to market yourself if you want to do more than just upload perfect shots on Instagram. Learning to be a savvy business person is vital if your goals include starting your own photography studio.