Lauren Joffe - The Real College Guide

Math is your thing? Cha-ching!

Turns out the 15 bachelor’s degrees with the highest starting salaries have a common denominator: They’re all math-related.

Turns out that seventh-grade algebra could come in handy after all -- in fact, you can bank on it. Why?

Well, recent research shows that math-related fields are highly lucrative. And if you have a solid mathematical foundation from which to build, turns out it’s not all that difficult for undergrads to prepare. Here we check out why majors that require heavy-duty math skills, like engineering and computer science, have recent and soon-to-be grads reaping some serious rewards. …

Hot-ticket Degrees

Of the 15 highest-earning diplomas, a full-on 12 are engineering majors. That’s a hefty number tipping the scale -- the findings of a recent National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey. Petroleum engineering tops the list with an average starting annual salary of around $83,000. Non-engineering high-earning majors include computer science and actuarial science followed by construction management, which ends the list at a roughly $53,000 starting salary.

While the average post-grad job offer rounds out at $48,500, a chemical or mining engineer (the second and third top-earning degrees, according to the NACE survey) is offered a whopping $64,000 to start. Big diff.

Here’s the complete list of the 15 highest earning majors:

1. Petroleum engineering

2. Chemical engineering

3. Mining engineering

4. Computer engineering

5. Computer science

6. Electrical engineering

7. Mechanical engineering

8. Industrial engineering

9. Systems engineering

10. Engineering technology

11. Actuarial science

12. Aeronautical engineering

13. Agricultural engineering

14. Biomedical engineering

15. Construction management

Simply Supply and Demand

Not sure how this adds up? The basics of any economics class revolve around the principle of supply and demand, and engineering majors are making bank because of this very principle. According to NACE executive director Marilyn Mackes, “Many of the engineering disciplines benefit from an imbalance in the supply-demand ratio.

Even in a tight job market, there are simply more opportunities requiring an engineering degree than graduates available to fill those positions. That drives up salary.”

“The ability to handle quantitative information makes anyone more valuable in today’s workforce,” agrees NACE director of research Edwin Koc. “Much of the decision-making in any business is based on the analysis of data -- numbers. Having that skill not only means you are likely to receive a higher starting salary, but that you are more valuable after you are actually employed.”

Still, Koc doesn’t believe offering higher salaries draws more students into these fields: “While the number of graduates overall increased substantially between 1997 and 2007, those in majors such as engineering and computer science did not increase very much even though these were the majors with the highest starting salaries for bachelor’s degrees.”

Easy as One, Two, Three?

It’s not tough to understand why more students aren’t jumping on the math-based bandwagon. Students probably migrate away from such degrees because they are infamously rigorous. For example, a major such as computer engineering requires its students to take calculus I, II and III; linear algebra; and differential equations along with a slew of other engineering, programming and technical courses. Intimidated yet?

For many students, the thought of spending an entire undergraduate career doing math is more than intimidating -- it is downright frightening. But why are so many of us scared of something that really is rather elementary? To get some specifics about obtaining an average engineering degree at a reputable four-year institution, we consulted Fred Greenleaf, New York University’s director of undergraduate studies. Greenleaf professes, “Most people are actually stymied by third- to 9th-grade math experience.”

Not too surprising when a survey conducted this time last year by Wakefield Research found that of 400 kids ages 9 to 14, more than one-third said math was their most difficult subject. Eighteen percent of kids surveyed called math “boring,” while 13 percent actually referred to it as “torture.” And that’s not all: The parents of the kids were surveyed, as well, and a full 86 percent of those parents admitted math is important to their careers -- even though half said they thought they’d never need the math they learned in school.

It’s Never Too Late

“If you enter college with a weak foundation where basic skills are not there, when you get to college, it is a great jolt,” says Greenleaf. But keep in mind that Greenleaf does not believe this means a student who is behind the proverbial eight ball is unable to do math. “In the K through sixth levels, if you don’t learn to think in terms of algebra, numbers, fractions, etc., it just becomes more difficult. It is like learning a language: As you get older, it gets harder.”

While math is a skill that can be obtained by studying often, there are still students who struggle no matter how much they try. Sound familiar? At the foundation of this problem lies a simple inability to think analytically. “It’s not that they are incapable; they just are of temperamental thinking,” says Greenleaf. “Reading math is analytical, whereas writing math is more irrational … it comes from intuition. All problem-solving is coupled with rational skills to exploit any intuition you might have.”

But if students work hard at building foundational skills, Greenleaf asserts that they can overcome any difficulties. Many colleges offer remedial courses in calculus and algebra to students who feel shaky with their math skills. Greenleaf helped write the remedial course at NYU nearly 10 years ago: “Many times I hear, ‘This is the first time a math class ever made sense to me.’ These students at the lower [skill] level are the ones we need to focus on to make sure they develop the capability. Learning to think for themselves is a huge adjustment.”

How to Get in the Game

Before you go changing your major, it’s important to understand how to jump aboard and what exactly will be required of you. Because every university varies slightly in terms of requirements, check out your school’s Web site. Go through the list of required courses and descriptions to see if they are of interest to you. Don’t expect to escape calculus, statistics and algebra, as these foundational classes are necessary regardless of your institution. Still uncertain? Make an appointment with your advisor or someone in the math department. A personal meeting will help you discover if a math-related career is right for you.

Also, understand the specifics that will be expected of you once you graduate and join the workforce. According to those already in the field, much of their time is spent doing actual mathematical calculations, while the remainder is dedicated to writing reports on the conclusions. Moreover, you might be responsible for testing prototypes, redesigning products, and researching and developing solutions.

Regardless of compensation, entering a field that you think is a snore will make for an exceptionally unrewarding college and post-graduate career. But if obtaining a math degree is your calling, don’t hesitate! You’re about to enter a field that not only promises to be desirable to employers but also provides financial security and job stability. Koc affirms, “The current prospects for the near future as outlined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that the math-related majors, particularly in computer science, have among the best growth prospects.”


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Making Majors out of Math Skills