The Most Lucrative Degrees Here are the fields of study that can set kids up for top jobs, plus tips on how even liberal arts graduates can boost their chances of finding work.
By Shelly Branch

(MONEY Magazine) – Like most parents, you're probably hoping that your offspring's ultimate five- or six-figure tuition tab will lead to a prompt payoff in the job market. Indeed, even before kids enroll in college, many parents are asking career counselors: How can my child be assured of getting a first job? What companies will be doing the hiring in four years, and what will they be looking for? " Parents never used to be quite so concerned about jobs," says Jane Hopkins Carey, executive director of the career center at Georgetown University. Today, she adds, "parents are obsessed with career issues." And no wonder: Only one in three of last spring's grads left college with a firm job offer. Clearly, a well-rounded liberal arts education provides a valuable foundation for the future by teaching a student how to think and learn. In 1994, however, while jobs for college graduates across the country increased 2% over 1993, according to a Northwestern University study, positions for liberal arts majors shrank by 11%. What, then, are the best moves to make? Your son or daughter can guarantee a quick return on a college degree by nailing down a big-bucks major. Does your kid have the head for applied mathematics? Then he or she may be in the running for a plum junior analyst's position with a Wall Street firm at a typical starting salary of $45,000. Can your child excel in software engineering? If so, say hello to a $40,000 job at a company such as Microsoft. "Technical degrees still provide the easiest access to the job market," says Philip Gardner, administrator of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, a career think tank at Michigan State University. "Engineers and computer analysts can sell specific skills to employers, whereas liberal arts majors tend to deal in intangibles."

Business majors also do better straight out of school than, say, students of Shakespeare or philosophy. According to the College Placement Council, an association of recruiters and career counselors in Bethlehem, Pa., 47% of the jobs offered to the nation's 1.2 million 1994 graduates were for business grads (average starting salary: $25,540). Among the least successful job seekers were communications majors, who got only 2% of all offers and average entry-level pay of $21,588. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that job openings will grow by 26.4 million, or 22%, over the next decade. Companies in the service sector are expected to offer a stunning 92.8% of the new jobs. The bureau figures that demand will grow not just for computer jocks but also for people such as public relations managers and physical therapists (see the table below). Starting pay in the fastest-growing professions will likely be highest for holders of degrees in computer science, engineering and health science, all of whom today command average opening salaries of more than $31,000. Educators and employers alike, however, urge college students and parents not to be slaves to statistics in selecting a major. "You can't force-feed someone with a discipline simply because it pays well," says Victor Lindquist, executive director at the Career Management Research Institute in Oakbrook, Ill. and the former dean of placement at Northwestern University. "Choosing a major based on job opportunities can lead to a lifetime of unhappiness." Fortunately, for the vast majority of freshmen, who typically are light- years away from knowing what they want to do, most of tomorrow's jobs will be created by companies that are too small to qualify for the FORTUNE 500. Moreover, these firms -- which rely on adaptable, self-sufficient types -- tend to value people with highly transferable skills, such as negotiation and conflict resolution. As a result, liberal arts students are not doomed. "These students are often the best thinkers and problem solvers," says Tariq Shakoor, director of the career center at Emory University. "I tell them that in looking for jobs, it's not what's out there, it's what's in you." Shakoor advises liberal arts students to pursue subjects they enjoy but buttress them with courses that provide practical skills and learn how to transfer that knowledge to the real world. Lindquist agrees: "Even more important than the major is the productive use of one's elective hours." Does your child aspire to a job in arts management, perhaps working for a symphony orchestra? A few courses in computers and accounting will bolster his or her prospects. Says Shakoor: "No matter what work you do, you will be faced with a budget and balance sheet." In fact, nearly all jobs over the next decade will require computer know- how, compared with only 50% five years ago. "If you're not computer literate, you're illiterate," says Lindquist. Also important will be a knowledge of statistics and how to apply them. "You certainly can get hired in corporate America as a humanities major," notes Maury Hanigan, president of the Hanigan Consulting Group, a New York City company that helps corporations recruit employees from colleges. "But there's probably going to be pressure on you to prove your potential as a manager." On the other hand, business and math majors might add fluid writing and speaking skills to their technical expertise. That will help them stand out in a tight job market. "Today's employers are looking for communications skills right along with technical and math ability," says Margaret Schrock, assistant director for employment services at the University of Illinois at Urbana/ Champaign's career services center. Even among financial companies, " well- roundedness counts for a lot," says Hanigan. An example: Corporations sometimes pursue nonbusiness majors because they need people who can effectively explain the merits of a product or project, not merely get the facts and figures straight on paper. And, of course, students interested in international business will move up on the hiring line if they speak foreign languages (best bets for today's global economy: Chinese and Spanish). "Companies also are impressed by students with good leadership skills," says Deborah McCoy, director of career services at the University of California at Riverside. She advises undergrads to join a team, club, sorority or campus newspaper staff -- and resolve to be a doer, not just a member. "Even if you can't be president of a club or sorority, volunteer to chair a committee, organize the annual dinner or recruit the most new members," says McCoy. "Students can use these extracurriculars to make themselves seem less generic." For example, Larry Kohn, a '94 graduate of Emory University with a degree in religion ("It was the most exciting major the school offered"), stood out to recruiters because of his two years' experience running his fraternity's $100,000-a-year kitchen and doing quality checks one summer at a jeans factory in the Dominican Republic. He landed a job as a broker with Olde Stockbrokers in Atlanta. "Religion and stocks are like night and day," he says. "But I got the job by making a name for myself outside the classroom." Finally, your son or daughter shouldn't wait until junior year to check out the college's career services office. With new graduates competing against displaced workers for positions, an early, aggressive job search is important. As a result, colleges are reporting heavier traffic at their career services offices -- as much as a threefold increase in five years. These offices can provide valuable career guidance, help in drafting a resume, and information about internships (see the box below). The payoff? "Those students who start researching their options in their freshman or sophomore year are the ones who graduate and have jobs waiting," says Rosemary Bedoya, coordinator of academic internships at the University of California at Riverside. "They're on their way."

CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics; College Placement Council CAPTION: Ten Top Careers for the 21st Century This list of fastest-growing occupations that require college degrees is based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data. They are ranked by projected growth rates through the year 2005.