Salaries for College Graduates Climb Amid Labor Shortages

Average starting salaries for new graduates rose 8.5% over two years

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS September 14, 2021
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Salaries for College Graduates Climb Amid Labor Shortages

Starting salaries for new college graduates in the U.S. rose as business growth resumed this year, despite the continuing pandemic, and as employers confronted labor shortages.

Overall, the average starting salary for the college Class of 2020 was $55,260, according to a recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

The Summer 2021 NACE Salary Survey report shows that the average starting pay for Class of 2020 graduates was 2.5 percent above the average starting salary of $53,889 for the Class of 2019 and up 8.5 percent from the Class of 2018's final average starting salary of $50,944.

Degrees Most in Demand

Technical majors, such as computer programing (with a starting salary of $86,098) and various types of engineering majors were the highest paid among Class of 2020 graduates earning bachelor's degrees.

"In some cases, salary increases most likely reflect these unique times," said Shawn VanDerziel, NACE's executive director. "For example, the increased demand for nurses as front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic may have fueled the 2.1 percent 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."

Top-Paid Majors Among Bachelor's Degree Graduates

Academic Major Average Starting Salary
Petroleum engineering$87,989
Computer programming$86,098
Computer engineering$85,996
Computer science$85,766
Electrical, electronics, and communications engineering$80,819
Operations research$80,166
Computer and information science$78,603
Statistics$75,916
Applied mathematics$73,558
Chemical engineering$72,713

Source: Summer 2021 NACE Salary Survey report.


"Technical majors typically are the highest paid as they are usually the highest in demand," Andrea J. Koncz, NACE's research manager, told CNBC. "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."

Master's Degree Graduates

When it comes to the top average salaries among Class of 2020 master's degree fields of study, the technical disciplines again top the list. However, the greatest salary premium among master's degree graduates were among biology and business administration/management majors, according to NACE's report.

Average Starting Salaries for Bachelor's and Master's Degree Graduates

Major Average Bachelor's Salary Average Master's Salary Differential
Systems engineering$73,559$106,64045.0%
Computer/information technology administration$59,032$86,69546.9%
Registered nursing$58,626$84,67444.4%
Business administration/management$54,392$82,37251.4%
Communication and media studies$42,345$62,16646.8%
English language and literature$38,597$54,10240.2%
Biology37,182$69,325386.5%
Psychology$37,006$52,78642.6%
Social work$35,622$48,71136.7%

Source: Summer 2021 NACE Salary Survey report.

The figures NACE reported are for base salaries only and do not include bonuses, commissions, benefits or overtime rates. Data were reported to NACE through May 15, 2021, from 249 schools that provided salary data by specific program or major, and represent data for 757,144 Class of 2020 graduates.

The findings updated the starting salary figures NACE had previously reported in the Winter 2021 NACE Salary Survey report.


Starting Salaries for 10 Popular College Degrees

Average starting salaries this year for the most popular bachelor's degrees, according to Niche.com, a job search website for college students, were recently reported by Yahoo! Finance as follows:

  • Business and management—$58,869
  • Nursing—$72,249
  • Psychology—$48,562
  • Biology—$54,685
  • Engineering—$71,088
  • Education—$56,484
  • Communications—$58,174
  • Accounting—$47,482
  • Finance—$60,851
  • Criminal justice—$50,997

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Salary Increase Projections for 2022

Pay raises in the U.S. are returning to pre-pandemic levels but rising prices mean higher salaries aren't likely to keep pace with inflation.

Pay raises in the U.S. are returning to pre-pandemic levels but rising prices mean higher salaries aren't likely to keep pace with inflation.

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