Americans have been told that a college education is their ticket to financial success, but a new study reveals that’s not necessarily the case.

According to the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity (FREOPP), the average lifetime return on investment for a Bachelor’s degree is $160,000.

The catch is: that number masks significant discrepancies between different college majors.

Degrees in engineering, computer science, nursing, and economics have an average ROI of $500,000 or more, whereas psychology, humanities, and education have a payoff of less than $62,000.

Meanwhile, fine arts majors have a negative ROI, meaning it costs more to attend these programs than they actually pay over the lifetime.

The study measures ROI as an increase in lifetime earnings that a student can expect when they enroll in a certain program, minus tuition and fees, school supplies, and lost earnings while studying.

The study also found that trade school diplomas “have a higher payoff than the typical Bachelor’s degree.” That means becoming a plumber is statistically more lucrative than majoring in psychology.

Think a Master’s degree will help boost ROI? Not quite.

In fact, “nearly half of Master’s degree programs leave students financially worse off,” with the exception of professional degrees in law, medicine, and dentistry.

While there are many reasons why students choose to attend college, financial motivation is usually near the top of the list—and for good reason.

Making the most out of college debt

The college has never been as expensive as it is today, so experts advise weighing majors and enrollment carefully.

Report author Preston Cooper said the most important variable students need to consider when choosing a college program is how much they’ll earn over their lifetime.

That’s because choosing the wrong major will not only lower students' earnings potential but also trap them in a debt spiral.

“A high-earning career trajectory will deliver benefits for decades [...] while high tuition costs must be paid for a few years at most,” he wrote.

As college tuition continues to rise, more students are forced to take out costly loans just to fund their education. With no guarantee of a high-paying job, this is a recipe for financial hardship.

According to Creditnews’ real-time student debt tracker, Americans have accumulated more than $1.7 trillion in federal student loan debt. That’s more than $37,000 per borrower.

But that’s arguably not even the worst part.

Undergraduates entering the 2024-2025 academic year will pay 6.53% interest on their loans, the highest rate in more than a decade. The interest rate for grad students will jump to 8.08%.

For many students, the writing is already on the wall—they’ll never be able to repay their student loans without facing extreme hardship.

That’s why millions of borrowers have staged a “massive student debt strike,” demanding that the government forgive their loans.