We've updated our rankings for 2020! Check out the most recent version right here.
We pulled job growth and salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and compared it with degree information from the National Center for Educational Statistics to determine which fields fared best from a cost/benefit standpoint.
Of the top 50 majors in our ranking, business degrees hold a whopping 14 spots -- three in the top 10. This may be why business remains one of the most popular majors in the country. But with so many specializations to choose from, how can students be sure they're making the right choice?
Based on our findings, here are the 20 business fields with the best potential ROI:
People assume that studying entrepreneurship automatically means you're planning to go into business for yourself. In fact, early on, many questioned whether business schools could even teach entrepreneurship or if the required talents were innate. But today, many employers look favorably at the study of entrepreneurship. After all, companies need people who know how to grow a business.
"These days companies large and small are recognizing the value of an 'entrepreneurial mindset' and see the unique value in hiring someone who has a demonstrated interest and commitment to entrepreneurial thinking (i.e., by pursuing a degree in the subject)," says Bruce Bachenheimer, clinical professor of management at Pace University.
Nowadays, nearly 500 schools have entrepreneurship programs. Students typically learn how to write business plans, craft elevator pitches, market ideas, and fundraise. In more recent years, Steve Blank's Lean LaunchPad curriculum has inspired professors to ditch the business plans and have students test their real business ideas as part of their classwork. Programs are evolving and growing at a rapid rate. Graduates have taken on jobs in multinational corporations and startups big and small. Of course, many of them are also trying their hand at being their own bosses and launching businesses from scratch.
Business is a popular degree choice because the skills taught in these programs can be applied to just about any field. This is a generalist degree, which means that coursework will cover a little bit of everything relevant to working in today's business world. Students usually learn about analyzing and interpreting data, basic accounting, working in teams, and communication. Graduates often work as representatives in human relations, store managers, customer service coordinators, or salespeople, to name just a few options.
Similar to the general business degree, this one has students looking more at the big picture of businesses. Usually, they are exposed to ethics, leadership, financial analysis, and global issues, in addition to the basics. Graduates might seek work as financial advisors or analysts, advertising and promotions managers, HR supervisors, or administrative services managers.
Marketing has changed tremendously in just the last decade, which means there's a big need for newly minted marketers on the cutting edge of what's happening in the industry. Nowadays, marketing is about branding, maintaining an effective social media presence, and maximizing technology. It can also be about defending a company's reputation when in crisis. Marketing students often learn how to better understand their audience, use technology to their advantage, and make sure brands maintain visibility. Graduates might end up working in the marketing divisions of consumer packaged goods companies, on staff in advertising companies, or in public relations firms.
MIS is the designation for people who help firms manage investments in equipment, personnel, and services. Essentially, students in these programs learn about business concepts and technology, so that they can use computer systems to solve business problems. Since technology is changing at a rapid pace, this degree is appealing to employers. Database administrator and system analyst are among the career paths graduates might seek.
6. Accounting and Finance
Since death and taxes are the only guarantees in life, accountants are often in demand. Students of accounting and finance study how to understand financial statements, navigate finance laws, and manage budgets. Of course, they learn how to properly file taxes, too. Many graduates end up working for accounting firms or in the accounting departments of companies.
"Students view training in finance as giving them a broad set of thinking/analytical skills and solid development of their decision making abilities," says Sreenivas Kamma, chair of the Department of Finance at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "These skills allow them to quickly adjust and work in many other areas of business."
Students pursuing this major will likely experience much of the same coursework as those who study accounting and finance. The difference is there will be more attention given to leadership, creating strategies and visions, and balancing the bottom line with doing well for the greater community.
What is most striking about this major is the comparatively low average salary. What makes it shine despite that is the sheer volume of opportunities available to graduates in this field. With a wide range of related positions, and a relatively low average tuition cost, it's no wonder this degree ranks among the top 10. Students of retail management learn how to make stores hum, manage personnel, offer customer service, and find ways to attract customers.
Operations managers are the people who keep a company efficient and lean. Their job is to assess quality, systems, and product and service development to make sure everything is working cohesively. Students of operations management can expect to take courses such as project management, integrated costs and schedule control, and decision modeling and analysis, along with business basics. Some might also investigate the implications of a global economy on operations, supply chain management, and production. Grads often start in line associate positions with designated responsibilities, such as monitoring inventory, and can work their way up to plant manager, for instance.
International business relates to the commercial transactions that take place between governments and businesses in different countries. Students in this field study business basics from a cross-cultural perspective. Top programs often have students studying, interning, or at least traveling abroad. Courses covering cultural habits and foreign languages are usually a requirement. Jobs run the gamut and could include managing imports and exports, advising on foreign currency investment, or consulting on management abroad.
Management science is the key to solving complex business problems. Experts in the field use math and science to plan systems and processes to keep companies running smoothly. Of course, students must tackle high-level math and science courses to prep for such a career. Graduates could seek jobs that have them optimizing an assembly line, forecasting trends, or scheduling flights for airlines.
Most business degrees have people clamoring for jobs in the private sector. This degree is for those who are interested in applying business ideals to the public or nonprofit sector. Beyond business, these programs are going to cover advocacy, fiscal administration, and leadership through the lens of the public sector. Graduates usually pursue jobs in national, state, or local government or at a nonprofit organization.
The coursework for international marketing is similar to that of general marketing. The difference is students in these programs are going to look at everything through the lens of the global marketplace. Much like those studying international business, they are going to have to focus on the cultural intricacies and languages of different regions of the world. Graduates might seek positions that have them traveling abroad or even living there as international marketing staff with the possibility of moving up to managerial roles.
Somebody has to keep people honest by having them pay their bills. That's the job of credit managers, who collect payments from customers on behalf of companies or financial institutions. What is striking about this career choice is the stark distinction between the average annual tuition cost of $4,733 and the average salary of nearly $70,000. While some students opt to major in business or finance and then pursue a career in credit management, others go the specialized route, which usually includes courses such as credit law, selling practices, and money management.
Finance is a popular choice among business students because of the allure of Wall Street and other financial districts. In school, students usually study analysis of economic and financial data, as well as risk management. Many graduates pursue posts as analysts or in the finance departments of multinational corporations. They might also consider careers as personal financial advisors or in sales for financial institutions.
"Most companies have traditionally considered finance to be the science of making informed business decisions with available market and company information," says Eric Johnson, associate director for Professional Development in Graduate Career Services at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "Our recruiters often say that the most successful hires are the ones who are the first in their hiring class to explain how a dollar flows from a customer through their business practices and into the bottom line. Those skills are best obtained through a finance degree."
Not everyone wants to be a cog in a multinational conglomerate. Some people prefer to work for smaller businesses or even mom-and-pop type shops. In that case, they might opt to study small business. In these programs, students are exposed to many of the same courses they might have in an entrepreneurship program, but often the issues are scaled down to apply to small businesses. Applying finance, accounting, HR, and other basics to a small business are among the subjects usually covered in the curriculum. Grads might start their own businesses or work for small or family businesses.
Students of accounting usually study tax law, budgets, and financial statements. They often perform work similar to those who study finance and business management along with accounting, but might experience a slightly more specialized, niche program. Many of these graduates work for accounting firms or within accounting departments at companies. Some offer personal accounting services to the public.
Some people might call this business's "touchy-feely" degree, but it's really the wave of the future. Modern organizations are looking to do more than meet the bottom line. Today's executives want to answer the Millennials' call and run their companies more personably. Enter students of organizational leadership, who study emotional intelligence and how to get the most out of your employees. Human resources, team building, boosting morale, and handling crisis are often among the subjects tackled. Jobs could include working on staff in a human resources department, training and development organization, or even an institution of higher learning.
Companies are overflowing with data, thanks in part to all the strides in technology. As a result, they need people who understand that data and can translate it into sound and profitable policies, products, and services. That's where those in marketing research step in. They study market conditions to determine the success of products and services before they launch, so their employers avoid costly errors. Communications, software tools, and marketing management are often on the course roster.
Students who pursue this degree study business finance, marketing research, organizational behavior, promotions and campaigns, and marketing management. Many graduates find careers in advertising and public relations. While marketing and the practice of convincing consumers to buy a product or service is the focus of such programs, students are typically exposed to general business theories, too.
In an effort to help prospective students get the most out of their educational investment, OnlineDegrees.com recently published the Degree & Career Match-Up Tool, an interactive tool that shows which majors offer the biggest "bang for your buck" in terms of job opportunities and tuition costs.
We ranked 85 online business degrees on six criteria, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Each degree was ranked on a 10-point scale, and we used the weights specified below to come up with our final scores:
- Number of occupations matched to each degree, National Center for Education Statistics, 2010:
- Average annual salary for all occupations matched to each degree, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014
- Average projected job growth rate, 2014-24, for all occupations matched to each degree, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015
- Average concentration of jobs per 1,000 for all occupations matched to each degree, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014
- Number of schools offering programs online at any level for each degree, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014
- Average in-state tuition for all schools offering programs online for each degree, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014
- Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) 2010 to Standard Occupational Classification (2010) Crosswalk, National Center for Education Statistics, 2010, Accessed March 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/cipcode/resources.aspx?y=55
- May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Accessed March 2015, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
- Economic and Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dec. 19, 2013, Accessed March 2015, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/ecopro.toc.htm
- Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2014, Accessed March 2015, http://www.bls.gov/oes/tables.htm
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2013-14, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed March 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/