Class of 2021 Starting Salaries Rebound

As hiring picks up, new graduates can expect larger offers

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS April 19, 2021
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Class of 2021 Starting Salaries Rebound

Early projections show that the average starting salaries for Class of 2021 graduates earning bachelor's degrees are expected to increase from those of the Class of 2020, according to a research report from the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

"As we recently closed out a disruptive and unpredictable 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the average starting salary projections for the Class of 2021 reveal some much-needed optimism on the part of employers," NACE reported.

According to the Winter 2021 NACE Salary Survey report, while some of the projected increases for Class of 2021 graduates are on the smaller side, salaries for graduates in the computer sciences field are an exception. The average salary projection for these graduates is $72,173, which is a climb of 7.1 percent from last year's projection of $67,411 for the Class of 2020.

While the increase in average starting salary projections for engineering graduates is just 1.6 percent, they are expected to be the second highest paid majors, with an overall salary projection of $71,088.
The overall average salary projection for business majors is up 1.6 percent to $58,869.

Average Salaries for Bachelor's Degrees by Academic Discipline

Academic Discipline 2021  Salary  Projection 2020 Salary
  Projection
% Change
Computer Sciences$72,173$67,411+ 7.1%
Engineering$71,088$69,961+ 1.6%
Math & Sciences$63,316$62,488+ 1.3%
Social Sciences$59,919$57,425+ 4.3%
Humanities$59,500$53,617+ 11.0%
Business$58,869$57,939+ 1.6%
Communications$58,174$56,484+ 3.0%
Agriculture & Natural Resources$54,857$53,504+ 2.5%

Source: Winter 2021 Salary Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers, January 2021.


The figures reported are for base salaries only and do not include bonuses, commissions, benefits or overtime rates. Salary projections were reported by 139 NACE employer members surveyed at the end of 2020.

Variations Within Academic Disciplines

Although graduates in all the above academic categories are projected to see increases in their salaries, not all majors within each category are expected to do so. For example, the overall average salary for math and sciences majors is expected to increase 1.3 percent to $63,316. However, chemistry majors, who fall into this category, are projected to see their average salary drop 3 percent to $59,625, while math majors are expected to average $67,360—a 4.5 percent increase.

Degrees Most in Demand

"The demand for accounting majors is evident," NACE reported. "Not only are they the major most in demand at the bachelor's degree level, but their average salary projection has jumped by more than 10 percent, from $52,734 last year to $58,508 this year."

Top Bachelor's Degrees in Demand by Major

Academic Major % of Respondents that Will Hire
Accounting54.0%
Finance52.5%
Business Administration/Management48.9%
Computer Sciences
48.9%
Mechanical Engineering44.6%
Logistics/Supply Chain39.6%
Electrical Engineering38.8%
Information Sciences & Systems37.4%
Computer Engineering32.4%

Source: Winter 2021 Salary Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers, January 2021.


Among other disciplines, NACE reported the following Class of 2021 starting salary expectations:

  • The average salary projections for Class of 2021 graduates earning social sciences degrees ($59,919) is 4.3 percent higher than last year's average ($57,425). Within this discipline, the majors with the highest average starting salary projections were economics ($65,100, up 7.8 percent), political science/international relations ($58,270, up 6.1 percent), and psychology ($57,42, up 4.8 percent).
  • Graduates in the communications field ($58,174) are projected to earn average salaries that are 3 percent higher than the salary predictions for their Class of 2020 counterparts ($56,484). However, when compared to the average of just two years ago ($52,056), the current average is up by almost 12 percent. The largest increase within the group is for journalism majors; the projection for Class of 2021 journalism majors ($61,400) is 9 percent higher than the projected average salary for the Class of 2020 journalism majors ($56,333).
  • Last year's Class of 2020 graduates earning bachelor's degrees in the humanities were projected to earn 5 percent less than their Class of 2019 counterparts. This year, their average projection of $59,500 has more than bounced back, climbing 11 percent from $53,617 last year.

Another source of data on graduates' pay is compensation data and software firm PayScale's 2020-21 College Salary Report tool, which allows online searching for early career and midcareer median pay by academic major. The data comes "from millions of people who have taken the PayScale Salary Survey and told us where they received their bachelor's degree," the firm said.

The site also has searchable salaries by school with graduates' early and midcareer median pay, because along with academic major and chosen field, the college from which students graduate is one of the biggest predictors of their starting salary.

Starting Salary Considerations

"It is important for employers to realize that candidates have access to pay data, too," said Shelly Holt, PayScale's chief people officer. "Employers should make sure the salaries they offer new grads are aligned to an overall compensation strategy, preferably one that is supported by multiple sources of salary data," so their offers are competitive.

In addition, she explained, "the right amount to offer depends not just on the job title and job level, but also the industry, location, company size and the market percentile you're targeting. For instance, lower cost areas with a lower minimum wage also tend to have lower entry-level salaries than more-expensive areas, so location definitely matters."

Making an offer to a new graduate, Holt said, "is the perfect time to explain your approach to compensation. Entry-level employees who are new to the workforce are especially unlikely to understand how salaries are determined, how to evaluate total rewards or what the growth opportunities are at your organization."

College Hiring Rebounds from Fall Projections

Employers project hiring 7.2 percent more new college graduates from the Class of 2021 than they hired from the Class of 2020, according to NACE's Job Outlook 2021 Spring Update report. The rebound from fall 2020, when employers expected to reduce college hiring slightly, "suggests optimism on the part of employers, fueled by expectations around the reopening of shuttered businesses, COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and the addition of jobs to the economy," according to NACE. "While not at the pre-pandemic hiring levels seen in 2019, the overall increase does signal strong movement in a positive direction."

Almost 30 percent of respondents reported they will hire more new college graduates, up from 16.5 percent in fall 2020—and just 8 percent plan to decrease hiring, down significantly from 31 percent reporting such plans last fall.

The jobs outlook survey was conducted from Feb. 17 through March 12, 2021, with responses from 207 employers.



SHRM Student Resources:

Know Your Worth: Determine Your Value to Employers as a Recent Graduate

How to Negotiate Salary as a Recent Graduate


SHRM Express Request
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Salary Increase Projections 2021

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