most beneficial degrees
Howard University graduates arrive for the 2023 Commencement. Source: AFP.

Education is the key to success – you’ve heard it time and time again, from your aunties, uncles and even Malcolm X. 

It’s why terms like “most beneficial degrees” and “most useless degrees” get refreshed annually. We all want to know what’s the most guaranteed path to success.

Most of the time this will depend on how “useful” society deems your degree is — and something that can evolve with time. 

Today’s most beneficial degrees might be some of the most “useless” ones a year from now.

But there are some degrees that are just useful time after time.

most common words in English

The most beneficial degrees stand the test of time. Source: AFP

Is a university degree worth it? 

Before asking what the most beneficial degrees are, you might be wondering if you even need a degree in the first place. 

The answer’s not an immediate “yes”.

Concerns over student debt in the US have resulted in a 4.1% decline in undergraduate enrollment between the spring of 2021 and 2022, opting for Vocational and Trade Education and Training (TVET) instead.

Because of this, 55% of US companies eliminated bachelor’s degree requirements as of November 2023.

Reasons for doing this include creating a more diverse workforce, increasing the number of applicants for open positions, and citing other ways to gain skills.

With stats showing how more graduates work in jobs unrelated to their studies, it makes sense why people are beginning to pursue experience over education.

most beneficial degrees

Students are pursuing experience over education now as a way to avoid student debt from university tuition fees. Source: AFP.


But university degrees still matter: 

  • A 2019 New York Fed analysis shows that a university graduate earned a median wage of more than US$30,000 – almost 75% more – than those who had completed just high school. 
  • A 2023 research from Universities UK shows 73% of graduates found a job reflective of their ambitions in under a year, thanks to their university education.
  • More than four in five (81% of tech employers) still require degrees, according to a study by published by Cengage Group. 

The world is still at odds about whether or not committing to a three- to four-year (or longer) degree is worth it. 

What doesn’t change is this: the connotation of a “useless” degree is still around. So, let’s look at what it takes for a programme to be called one of the most beneficial degrees. 

most beneficial degrees

The speed at which people can receive a return on investment in their education is a big reason why they choose to pursue a programme. Source: AFP

What makes a degree beneficial or useful? 

Superior, preferred, worth it – whatever it is, some degrees stay favoured in the world; they withstand the test of time. 

There are a few (sometimes overlapping) reasons this happens. 

Return on investment, which is, more often than not, money. 

You can’t talk about the most beneficial degrees without talking about money. After all, money doesn’t grow on trees — if they do, we’ve not found any yet. 

Equipping yourself with the right degree opens up key career opportunities that might hold a hefty annual income or impressive benefits behind the right door.

STEM-based degrees dominate this field, leaving the arts-related degrees in the dust.

Prestige

Whether it’s in the programme name, university name, or job title, some degrees evoke more admiration than others. 

While this might have to do with the fact that more people are employed in one profession than another (take astronauts versus accountants, for example), it also has to do with how “difficult” the programme is.

Most Asians are familiar with the pressure to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers – jobs that come with the natural combination of prestige, respect, and money. 

But let’s not underestimate the achievements of those outside of STEM.

Amal Clooney earned a bachelor’s in jurisprudence before pursuing her LLM degree and has represented cases worldwide; iconic filmmaker Wes Anderson has a Bachelor of Arts with a major in philosophy, and The Sphere at Las Vegas was designed by stadium specialist architecture office Populous

Of course, prestige also derives from where you received your degree. 

In 2019, most of those featured on Forbes’s Most Powerful list attended elite schools.

Reports show that five of the eight Ivy League schools are in the top 10 institutions in the US with the most significant salary impact. 

Impact

Some people believe that the most beneficial degrees are those that make the most impact.

Here, people choose paths that make the world a better place.

Whether it’s taking a sustainable programme to play an active part in pursuing the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals, being an agent of global development priorities (like those at Teachers Without Borders), or protecting human life and health (such as those at International Committee of the Red Cross), these noble causes are a reason for why some degrees are seen to be more admirable than others.

most beneficial degrees

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has approximately 16 million volunteers, members, and staff worldwide. Source: AFP.

5 most beneficial degrees and their benefits

When all is said and done, some degrees hold more importance than others. 

Here are five of them and what makes them stand out the way they do:

Computer Science

In a world with new technology constantly emerging, a versatile degree like computer science is useful.

If you have know-how on hardware, software, operating systems, and networks, you’re almost assured of finding a role anywhere in the world. 

Combine this multifaceted degree with its multitudes of specialisations, such as software engineering, information technology, cybersecurity, or data science, and you’re set for one of the highest-earning jobs on the market. 

Plus, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics estimates a growth of 21% between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the average growth rate of 5% for other occupations, which means job security is higher than most. 

Nursing

With more people staying alive longer, a lack of faculty, and nurses resigning due to burnout and other reasons, the world is seeing a global shortage of nurses.

Hence, nursing graduates are highly sought-after now more than ever. 

The flexibility of a nursing programme allows students to fill the numerous gaps within the healthcare sector as long as they have the right additional qualifications, such as a nurse anaesthetist or clinical nurse specialist.

In 2021, nurses in Europe were earning higher than the average wage.

The US Bureau of Labour Statistics also estimates almost 200,000 job openings in the US annually over the next decade, making this profession one with solid prospects.

most beneficial degrees

As the world grapples with a nursing shortage, nursing graduates are more sought-after than ever. Source: AFP.

Engineering

Engineering, and all its sub-sections, is a common programme in every list that mentions beneficial degrees as it covers most of the top rankings for highest-paying jobs. 

With their work in various fields, they develop new and improve existing processes, products and technologies that better society, something the world can never have enough of. 

Based on data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, engineering students comprised 6.1% of all first-degree UK undergraduates in 2020-2021.

Meanwhile, a 2022 report states that most engineers worldwide earn an average salary of under US$50,000 annually, though this does not include those of mid-level senior levels.

most beneficial degrees

Within the main branches of engineering – civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical, and industrial engineering – are hundreds of others that work towards creating a better society. Source: AFP.

Mathematics

Strong analytical, advanced numerical and problem-solving skills can make any graduate’s prospects skyrocket. With a degree in mathematics, the opportunities are limitless. 

Careers in information technology, finance, business, engineering or education are aplenty.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that math occupations have about 33,500 openings each year, with a median annual wage of US$99,590, more than double the median annual wage for all occupations of US$46,310. 

Business

Business gets a bad rep as “one of those degrees you can learn on your own.”

While there are business success stories who have never stepped foot in uni or dropped out, business remains one of the most multipurpose degrees out there.

Graduates with a business degree are quick on their feet and adaptable to the constant changes in the market. 

In the most common undergraduate business degree – a business studies degree –  students explore subjects like accounting, finance, management, and entrepreneurship, understanding all key elements needed to make a business successful.

According to US government data, business and financial professionals earned a median annual salary of US$76,570 as of May 2021.

The ROI of an MBA — a Master of Business Administration — is even greater. Graduates reportedly rake in an average of US$147,648 per year — going up to US$175,000 — according to Poets&Quants, a website that covers business education.

All degrees are fair game

It’s a STEM-focused world out there, but there’s no denying that there has been a growing focus on flexible and versatile individuals who can take up any task efficiently and effectively.

As people start pursuing what makes them happy and employers stop caring about what degree they’ve earned and where they’ve earned it, the playing field for the job market evens out for students everywhere.

most beneficial degrees

More multinational companies, like Google, are removing certain requirements to increase their number of job applicants. Source: AFP.

So, while it may be difficult for an archaeology degree holder to pick up a job more suited for an English literature major, it’s not impossible either. 

Those who can’t afford degrees that take longer than a certain amount of time may opt for shorter programmes that give quicker returns on investments; others could take on one of the world’s most sought-after degrees and still choose not to pursue a career out of because they don’t find fulfilment from it. 

Either way, the subjective terms “most beneficial degree” and “most useless degree” might still stick around. 

After all, not everyone sees eye to eye on some topics, but one man’s trash is another’s treasure, so remember not to judge someone by their degree – or lack thereof.