Career Training: Currency Exchange - 3 degrees that pay big By Jennifer Merritt Most degrees give a positive return on the investment, but some majors yield higher dividends than others. Three of the top contenders are business, computer science and aerospace engineering. Not only do these fields boast high earning potential, but new hires are likely to see hefty starting salaries. Business Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at Stetson University's School of Business Administration and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Choosing a College Major." One piece of advice he always doles out is that every college student should at least minor in business. "No matter what field you go into after college, you'll be working for an organization that either is a business or interacts with business," Hansen says. "Having basic business skills will help a pre-med student as well as a science or journalism major." Should you decide to major in business, you'll be in good company. Business is one of the top degrees graduates earn, with 307,000 bachelor's degrees awarded in 2004, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. A 2007 Michigan State University survey of business-recruiting trends found that 66 percent of the 864 companies polled intend to hire new employee’s right out of college. Recent grads illustrate this stat well. Those who held a business degree in 2007 found themselves entering a job market where initial job offers increased over 2006, with business administration and management majors, for example, seeing average starting salary offers rise 3.9 percent to $43,701, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) quarterly Salary Survey. In pursuing this degree, students can expect to attend classes in marketing, management skills and ethics. Must-take classes are international courses such as global marketing, international business or multinational finance, according to Hansen. "No one can escape working in the global economy, so it's good to get some basic understanding of how it operates," he says. Computer science Technology professionals are in demand, particularly among smaller companies, according to MSU's report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) backs that up with the expectation that job demand in this field will increase by 37 percent through 2016. In NACE's Salary Survey, computer science professions enjoyed pay increases across the board, even slightly higher than in the past. Salary varies depending on the specific type of computer-related work, of course. Computer science graduates witnessed a 4.1 percent increase in pay to more than $53,396, compared with a 2.5 percent increase in the spring '07 Salary Survey. Information sciences and systems graduates, meanwhile, saw a 4.6 percent increase, bringing their average offer to $50,852. According to BLS data, earnings can reach into the six figures -- computer systems designers earned an average salary just over $109,000 and computer and IT managers earned more than $100,000 on average in 2006. "High salaries are commanded by computer scientists and software engineers because the challenging work they do is valuable to society," says J.P. Mellor, director of Imaging Systems Lab and associate professor and acting head for Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's department of computer science and software engineering. "Engineering software solutions and creating new computing technologies which support these solutions both require highly skilled people who work well with others," Mellor continues, noting that required courses include computer systems and technical classes. "The only way to build an optimum computer system is to design it as a system -- design the hardware and software together," he says. "A computer systems course will help you understand how the entire system fits together." Furthermore, he notes, computing often is embedded in other disciplines. "For example, biomedical devices frequently contain computers," he says. "Take some technical courses in another discipline of interest so you can understand the problems they're working on and how computing might help."= Aerospace engineering NACE's Salary Survey found engineering graduates received some of the highest starting salary offers and, as a group, accounted for the most offers made to 2007 bachelor's degree graduates. "When we look at top paid majors, typically all the top 10 are engineering fields," says Andrea J. Koncz, employment information manager for NACE. "For the most current survey, the top paid was chemical and aerospace was number nine." Aerospace engineering companies can dole out starting salary offers of $55,612, according to NACE. Dig deeper and you'll find the earning potential only gets better. Air traffic controllers, for example, earned median annual salaries of $117,240 in May 2006, according to the most recent BLS data. "High salary levels for air traffic controllers are the result of market forces, the relatively difficult qualification and training requirements, and the intensive and stressful working conditions," says Richard Charles, Ph.D., chair and clinical associate professor in the department of aeronautical management technology at the College of Technology and Innovation in Mesa, Ariz. You don't need a degree to become a controller, but those with a degree are far more likely to be hired, says Charles, and are far more likely to advance in their careers. "It's a field, like flying, that someone really has to have a passion for, not something they decided on because they couldn't figure out what to major in," he says. This is something Charles knows from personal experience. He began flying as a youth and studied engineering and business in college. He spent four years in the Air Force and 30 years in the airline industry in engineering and marketing. "In my late 40s, I went back to school for a Ph.D. so I could join academia to do research, publish and teach." Classes in the field start out developing a strong background in math and science, and later, in instrument, flight and navigation systems and methods used by pilots, Charles says. There is a lot of information to absorb in this profession, but the payoff is worth it. The BLS projects the employment rate of controllers to grow 9 to 17 percent through 2014. Globally, there is a shortage of controllers, according to Charles. "In the U.S., the shortage will be acute for the next 10 years," he says. "I expect the salary range to remain high for the foreseeable future -- the only caveat is if the profession is privatized in the U.S., salaries can be expected to be reduced to some degree." In it for the money Worried how advisable it is to pursue a major based solely on its salary potential? If you can't fathom becoming passionate about motherboards, then it's likely a career in computer science isn't for you. Time and time again, the experts say money means nothing if you don't love what you do. "Focusing solely on salary potential will often just lead to an unfulfilled life," says Randall Hansen. "I always strongly advise my students to find their career passion -- what motivates them, empowers them and energizes them," he continues. "My philosophy is, find your career passion and the money will follow." So look closely and choose wisely. Hansen thinks many of today's baby boomers who got sidetracked by money are either now counting the days to retirement or taking bold steps to make a radical career change. "If you love your career, your life will be so much better," Hansen says.