10 Hardest College Majors in 2024

March 23, 2024

hardest college majors, hardest majors in college

If college is an obstacle course, you will have plenty of moments when you’re leaping from rope bridge to rope bridge like a cat and countless others when you’re flailing upside down in your harness. Every class will test you in different ways, whether it analyzes Shakespeare’s syntax or quantum mechanics. Feeling in control of the material is good; so is being challenged. The right major for you will contain a solid balance of both. However, some majors are generally regarded as more difficult than others. In this blog, we not only investigate the hardest college majors but also explore why are they considered to be more demanding.

Determining the Hardest Majors in College

Since ease and difficulty are always relative (just Google “Pinterest fail” for some shining examples), we selected the hardest college majors using the same criteria as we did for our list of easiest college majors. However, there are several important distinctions to note.


A 2010 study by Kevin Rask found that STEM majors–such as chemistry and math–earn the lowest GPAs (2.76 and 2.9, respectively). Other hard sciences, like biology and physics, averaged in the low threes. Additionally, another 2010 study–conducted by Ben Ost, a then-doctoral student at Cornell–attributed low STEM persistence to lower grades.

Several factors may contribute to lower STEM GPAs. Often, the humanities and social sciences focus on soft skills, like written analysis and problem-solving. On the flip side, STEM majors focus more heavily on hard skills, like programming languages and lab techniques. Likewise, many science and math disciplines layer material, requiring mastery before moving on to the next level. As such, students may find themselves struggling to sustain pace if they fall behind. To that end, many of the majors on this list are considered to be quite demanding in regard to subject matter.


Attrition and departmental graduation rates can shed light on a major’s level of difficulty. In essence, higher attrition and lower graduation rates may correlate to higher challenge. Interestingly, in 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics concluded that 50% of students who attrite from STEM majors attrite to a non-STEM major. (22% of STEM attriters ultimately pursued business while 15% dove into social/behavioral sciences and 11% into the humanities.) The study also found that an important predictor of STEM persistence was a rigorous STEM curriculum in high school. Moreover, a separate study noted that 60% of those who do attrite from a STEM major do so within the first or second year of college. These are essential factors to keep in mind when investigating the hardest majors in college.

Return on Investment

In general, STEM fields pay quite well and students enjoy speedy returns on investment. However, the push for STEM over the past decade has saturated some job markets. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nuclear engineering field is expected to grow by only 1% between 2022-2032. Other slow-growing STEM fields include marine engineering (1% growth) and petroleum engineering (2% growth). Geological engineering is not expected to grow at all. Moreover, some technical skill sets may not be easily transferrable to other disciplines, leaving graduates with fewer job options.

On the non-STEM front, fine arts and education both draw the short straw in regard to return on investment. Both are considered to be negative-value degrees by the Education Data Initiative.

To build this list of hardest college majors, we considered subject matter difficulty, post-college unemployment, underemployment, and job prospects, and overall return on investment. Finally, we evaluated the percentage of graduates who earn advanced degrees, as high rates of graduate study can negatively impact early-career earning potential.

All data–unless otherwise noted–was sourced from The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates, an interactive web feature maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The figures included here are from 2022.

10 Hardest College Majors

1) Architecture

Architecture: best described as a mash-up of art and engineering. In addition to becoming—you guessed it—architects, students who major in this discipline also go on to become interior designers, urban planners, and restoration managers. Given the dual focus on art and science, architecture projects are often incredibly demanding and require high attention to detail. It’s also quite difficult to become a licensed architect: you typically need to complete a 3-5 year internship and pass an exam. During your years of undergraduate study, expect to take courses in computer science, calculus, art history, and studio art.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $50,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $90,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 3.3%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 25.1%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 40.7%

Related: Best Colleges for Architecture

2) Biology

Biology is a broad field that is concerned with the study of living organisms. Subfields include zoology, marine biology, botany, and ecology. Many require an advanced degree, and almost two-thirds of biology majors attend some level of graduate school. As such, nearly half can expect to be underemployed. In addition, the subject matter is typically regarded to be difficult and time-intensive, and students must learn specialized techniques to be successful. As undergrads, students can expect to take courses in chemistry, math, molecular biology, and genetics.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $44,300
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $76,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 3.4%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 47.1%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 62.5%

Related: Best Colleges for Biology, Best Marine Biology Colleges

3) Chemistry

If you major in chemistry, you’re interested in the study of matter. In addition to mastering difficult subject material, almost two-thirds of chemistry majors go on to earn advanced degrees (a necessity for most research positions). Chemistry majors can be found working as chemists, materials scientists, and researchers, to name a few. In college, they take coursework in biology, math, organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and physical chemistry. Although it is one of the hardest majors in college, it is excellent preparation for medical school.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $50,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $85,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 2.8%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 40.9%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 65.3%

Related: Best Colleges for Chemistry

Hardest College Majors (Continued)

4) Education

Education majors spend their undergraduate years learning the theory and practice of teaching. According to Rask’s study (noted above), education majors typically enjoy high GPAs, which could make them a curious addition to a hardest college majors list. Their post-college unemployment rate is also quite low. However, they typically attrite from the major at high rates (42%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics) and have a lower return on investment than other fields. As an undergrad, you’ll tackle courses in child development, classroom management, and mentorship while partaking in supervised field experiences. In addition, teachers specialize in a particular subject and/or grade level, and a master’s degree is often required. College professors typically hold a terminal degree in their field.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $41,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $52,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 1.5%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 19.6%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 50.9%

Related: Best Colleges for Education, How to Become a Teacher, How to Become a College Professor

5) Engineering

In essence, engineers use math and science to solve practical problems. There are myriad types of engineering–biomedical, chemical, mechanical, aerospace, civil, electrical. Although some sectors of engineering are growing slowly, others are expanding at quite a fast clip, such as software engineering (25%), industrial engineering (12%), mechanical engineering (1o%), and environmental engineering (6%). In addition, you can also find engineers working in fields like business, technical writing, and investment banking. While specific coursework will depend on your engineering specialty, expect to take core courses in chemistry, physics, and calculus. Over one-third ultimately earn graduate degrees.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $68,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $100,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 3.1%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 28%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 39.5%

Related: Different Types of Engineering Majors, Best Colleges for Industrial Engineering, Best Colleges for Mechanical Engineering, Best Colleges for Environmental Engineering

6) Fine Arts

The fine arts include a slew of the hardest majors in college: dance, theater, music, film, photography, visual arts, and creative writing. In addition to a low return on investment and high post-college unemployment, fine arts majors often have to contend with competitive industries and high barriers to entry. Moreover, their projects and performances require a significant amount of time and discipline. Fine arts students typically take advanced classes in their specialty, studio/workshop courses, and art history. Finally, they often need to submit portfolios before being considered for their major of choice.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $40,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $68,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 7.9%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 55.5%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 22.6%

Related: Best Colleges for Theatre and Drama, Best Colleges for Dance, Best Colleges for Film, Best Colleges for Creative Writing

7) Mathematics

Math majors analyze numerical relationships and solve complex problems. However, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that math majors have the highest rate of attrition of any major (52%). Also, more than half hold graduate degrees. That said, many math majors pursue careers in actuarial science, data analysis, and finance, which can be extremely lucrative. As an undergrad, you’ll take courses in algebra, logic, geometry, and analysis. Depending on your focus, you’ll also take advanced courses in applied and/or pure mathematics.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $65,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $92,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 3.4%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 27.6%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 52.4%

Related: Best Colleges for Applied Mathematics, Best Colleges for Mathematics

Hardest College Majors (Continued)

8) Nursing

Nurses provide medical care in a range of settings, from schools to clinics to hospitals. Considered one of the hardest majors in college, it is also a physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding career. As undergraduates, students typically take coursework in psychology, chemistry, and anatomy as well as participate in clinical experiences. In addition, nurses must pass state licensing exams before they can start working. However, they have incredibly low levels of unemployment and solid early and mid-career salaries.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $62,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $80,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 1.3%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 11.1%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 29.4%

Related: Best Colleges for Nursing, Direct Admit Nursing Programs

9) Art History

Art history students spend their undergraduate years studying, analyzing, and researching famous works of art. Although they occupy roles at a diverse array of institutions that include museums, schools, and libraries, 8% of new art history majors must navigate unemployment. This is more than any other major. They’re also underemployed at a very high rate. Prepare to be creative and tenacious to make this degree work for you. Finally, in college, expect to take courses in art theory as well as art and architectural history.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $41,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $72,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 8%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 62.3%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 43.8%

Related: Best Colleges for Art History

10) Physics

Physics is a fundamental science that explores how the universe works. As such, specializations include astrophysics, particle physics, and meteorology, among others. Almost three-quarters of physics majors go on to pursue advanced degrees, and many work as physicists, researchers, and engineers. Like biology and chemistry–its hard science cousins– physics-related subject matter is considered to be quite challenging, earning it a spot on many hardest college majors lists. Undergraduates typically take courses in calculus, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics.

  • Median Early Career Earnings (age 22-27): $62,000
  • Median Mid Career Earnings (age 35-45): $95,000
  • Average Unemployment (age 22-27): 6.2%
  • Average Underemployment (age 22-27): 31.2%
  • Percentage with Graduate Degree: 67.9%

Related: Best Colleges for Physics, Best Colleges for Astronomy and Astrophysics

Final Thoughts – Hardest College Majors

While solid college and career planning are always essential, be sure to carefully consider the pros and cons before pursuing one of the hardest majors in college. That said, students who are dedicated and resourceful with strong academic support systems will be sure to find any of these majors to be financially rewarding as well as truly personally fulfilling.