College graduate starting salaries are at an all-time high—and these 10 majors earn the most

Despite a global pandemic that caused massive unemployment and slashed earnings among working-class Americans, starting salaries for recent college graduates continue to rise. 

According to a recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the average starting salary for the college class of 2020 was $55,260 — 2.5% higher than the average starting salary of the class of 2019 ($53,889 ) and 8.5% higher than the class of 2018 ($50,944). 

Among graduates who majored in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, average earnings were even higher. 

"In some cases, salary increases most likely reflect these unique times," says Shawn VanDerziel, NACE executive director. "For example, the increased demand for nurses as frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic may have fueled the 2.1% increase in the average starting salary for registered nursing majors, from $57,416 for these graduates from the Class of 2019 to $58,626 for Class of 2020 registered nursing graduates."

"Technical majors typically are the highest paid as they are usually the highest in-demand," explains Andrea J. Koncz, NACE research manager. "Also, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the greater need for technology in the new 'virtual world' that we live and work, the computer-related majors account for four of the top 10 paying bachelor's degrees from the class of 2020."

This trend has also been observed by other researchers.

A recent analysis of Department of Education data of 2.2 million college students who graduated in 2015 and 2016 and their early career earnings by public policy group Third Way found that STEM degrees provide some of the highest return on investment for graduates.

STEM degrees "tend to have the strongest job prospects, so they can start earning a lot of money right after graduating," Michael Itzkowitz, senior fellow at Third Way tells CNBC Make It.

Beyond highlighting the financial benefits of earning an advanced degree, the pandemic has also shone a light on how educational opportunity impacts the physical health of Americans. 

According to a March 2021 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, life expectancy for the two-thirds of Americans without a college degree is declining — creating a growing gap in life expectancy between those with and those without a secondary education.

"When you look at the data, you see life expectancy rising until 2012, and then it starts going down for people without a BA.," Sir Angus Deaton, professor of economics at USC and Princeton University and one of the study's co-authors previously told CNBC Make It. "The decrease in life expectancy is happening not to everybody, but to Americans who do not have a four-year college degree. There is a huge educational divide."

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