“Earn your college degree! Stay in school!” You’ve heard it from your parents, your teachers, celebrities, politicians, and nearly everyone else. It’s sound advice for a variety of reasons, and it’s generally accepted that a higher level of education will lead, on average, to a higher salary. But just how much will your salary be affected by the college degree you earn?
Well, as it turns out, an advanced degree can be worth quite a bit – and any college degree is worth a significant amount compared to no degree at all, according to data collected by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Census Bureau. Not only that, but the higher degree you attain, the better your chances of avoiding the unemployment line.
College Degrees Vs. High School Degrees
According to the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract, those without a high school degree earned an average of just over $21,000. Those with a high school diploma earned slightly over $31,000, while those with some college (but no degree) earned about a thousand dollars more than that. The average salary for those with associate’s degrees was just under $40,000, while the average salary for workers holding bachelor’s degrees jumps to nearly $59,000 per year.
College Degrees Vs. Graduate Degrees
While the affect of a college degree on earnings is pronounced, graduate degrees provide a big jump in earnings as well. Master’s degrees brought average salaries of just under $71,000; workers with doctorate degrees earned about $100,000 annually, and those with professional degrees (JDs, MDs, etc) earned the highest average salary, at over $125,000. It’s worth noting that workers holding graduate degrees, collectively, make up just a little over 10 percent of the work force.
College Degrees and Unemployment Level
The BLS went a step further, and investigated the average unemployment rate for each educational group. According to 2010 data, just as average salaries rose right along with education level, unemployment levels dropped. Those without a high school diploma were facing an unemployment rate of nearly 15 percent. Those with an associate’s degree were faring much better, with a 7 percent rate. Bachelor’s and master’s degree holders faced unemployment rates of 5.4 and 4 percent, respectively. And only about 2% of doctoral and professional degree holders were unemployed.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that these are average numbers – they’re not guarantees. As with everything else, a worker’s earning potential has as much to do with the specific field he or she is working in as it does the level of degree held. For instance, according to the BLS, a computer hardware engineer with a bachelor’s degree earns, on average, just a bit more a year than a mathematician with a doctorate degree.
Additionally, in some industries, devoting a few years to a graduate degree won’t bring any more earning potential than will spending the same amount of time building work experience. So before you set out to earn a PhD and expect the cash to start rolling in, take some time to investigate the career you’re looking into, and see what’s necessary to get to the level you want to reach.
It’s also good to keep in mind that these numbers aren’t cut and dry. While higher degrees often bring higher wages, they also tend to lead to higher initial debt. A college education brings with it a host of expenses and costs – not the least of which being that it’s often difficult to work full-time as a student. One opportunity cost of higher education is that you miss out on the full-time wages you could have been earning otherwise. Though the higher-paying jobs available to workers with advanced degrees often mean they can recoup those costs (and then some!) down the line, there’s no guarantee.
But, even with those caveats, the data backs up what your parents told you all those years: stay in school. You’ll expand your mind, broaden your horizons, and – if you play your cards right – fatten your wallet. But it can’t be stressed enough: take the time to investigate what it is you want to do. Don’t expect that you’ll automatically be rolling in dough once you receive your diploma. Talk to people in careers in which you’re interested, find out what the jobs are like and what level of college degree is necessary to work (and advance) within the field. Get comfortable with the BLS and other sources of industry- and degree-specific salary information. Take the time to find the best path to where it is you want to go.