Updated on 05.04.10

What Is an Education Really Worth?

Trent Hamm

Recently, I was browsing through some data from the U.S. Census when I stumbled upon a great table in the 2007 census data. On page 9 of this report, entitled Educational Attainment in the United States, one can find a very interesting table that describes the median earnings for workers aged 25 and over, sorted out by education.

For full time, year-round workers, here are the findings:

Workers without a high school diploma earn $24,964 a year on average.
Workers with just a high school diploma earn $32,862 a year on average.
Workers with some college and/or an associate’s degree earn $40,769 a year on average.
Workers with a bachelor’s degree earn $56,118 a year on average.
Workers with a higher degree earn $75,140 a year on average.

Note that these numbers include all types of degrees and also include all workers aged 25 and over, which means that the number includes a huge range of career paths and stages on those career paths.

But the numbers themselves are impressive.

Simply completing a high school diploma earns you $8,000 more a year (on average) for the rest of your life.
Getting an associate’s degree or completing trade school gets you $8,000 more a year (on average) for life beyond a high school diploma.
Getting a bachelor’s degree gets you $23,000 a year more (on average) for life beyond a high school diploma.
Getting a higher degree gets you $19,000 a year more (on average) beyond a bachelor’s degree and $42,000 a year more (on average) beyond a high school diploma.

Simply put, education is one of the best investments you can make for yourself. It drastically increases your earnings.

Hand in hand with that, however, is finding the right area of study for you.

Every job field is competitive and the people who have the most skills end up earning the best salary in their fields. The best way to build skills is to work with great passion doing something over and over again because you simply enjoy doing it.

Let’s take a look at a few specific careers for examples of this, using data from Payscale.com.

The average computer programmer earns between $38,764 and $62,916 – a $24,000 spread.
The average accountant earns between $35,574 and $51,518 – a $16,000 spread.
The average physical therapist earns between $57,983 and $76,298 – an $18,000 spread.

Those are just a few examples, but the pattern is clear – there’s a huge gap between the low end and the high end. Some of this is location based, but a great deal of the spread is competition-based – the best candidates get the best jobs. Even more important, it doesn’t include people who prepared for a career and didn’t make it, winding up in another field, often with lower pay.

Education is vital in terms of lifetime earnings. Knowing what to study – a field that matches your interests and talents – is just as vital. You’re far better off getting a degree and excelling in an area you’re passionate about than struggling to get a degree in an area that seems to earn more on paper but doesn’t fill you with passion at all.

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  1. Wesley says:

    As a person who is just about to finish the first semester of my Master’s program I hope these numbers bear out. Paying for it is bear at the moment, thankfully I have a decent paying job.

  2. J says:

    A couple of other points:

    – Education doesn’t stop when you earn your degree, that’s only a signpost on the road. Any field will have new technology, techniques, knowledge and changes. It’s important to stay on top of this through some sort of continued training or professional development work.

    – Development of a broad skill set in their chosen field also enables a person to adapt to the changing work environment and can open up more opportunities as times change.

    – You can never develop your “soft skills” enough. Effective communication skills, time management and organization all play a significant role in being successful.

  3. Jill says:

    I just finished a post-grad program in Human Resources. One of our assignments was to create a compensation survey (finding out the pay ranges) for a whole host of jobs.

    Payscale was one of the sites that was heavily used in everyone’s assignments, and we found that their data wasn’t the most reliable…there are lots of other sites to compare Payscale data to to ensure that you have the correct figures.

    Also, it’s important to note that pay ranges for different jobs are VERY location/market dependent, and it’s important that you’re looking at the ranges for the right job and the right location for the data to be useful.

  4. Sharon says:

    Also, the aren’t the ranges they give also affected by years on the job. Entry-level compared to someone ready to retire?

  5. J says:

    and one more point: Don’t pay for an advanced degree if you don’t have to. If you can land a job that’s “close enough” with a bachelor’s degree, many companies will pay a certain amount of tuition for a “work-related” degree. This can be interpreted pretty broadly — for example, working at a software company, you could go for a degree in Computer Science, but if you have a desire to move into management, you could also use it to work on a MBA, too, since a company always needs well-trained managers. Or if you work in HR at any company and wanted to get a master’s in something HR related, you could use it for a master’s in that field, even if the company’s products had nothing to do with HR.

    Also, many university jobs have a side benefit of free or reduced tuition, too. It’s not always a “free ride”, per se, but it can help defray costs quite a bit on the way to getting an advanced degree.

  6. Phil says:

    One thing you didn’t mention though Trent is the cost of that education. How many years will it take for someone such as Wesley who says he is getting his Master’s to pay off a student loan with interest? Is it possible that someone who starts in the work force out of high school with no debt to come out ahead by having an extra 8 years of experience and raises with no loans to repay? It just seems like the cost of that higher education has been skyrocketing lately.

  7. Julie says:

    I’m not sure I agree, and I say this as someone with an M.A. in history. Definitely, completing high school is better than not completing high school, and having a university degree can give you a leg-up when looking for white-collar jobs. But I know way too many M.A. graduates who are working retail jobs or making far less than they’re worth. At my last “real” job, I was making $17 an hour as an editor. Then I worked for a month as a research assistant for a lobbyist group for $13 an hour. That’s less than half of the average wages for my education, according to what you list above.

    The average person with a bachelor’s degree might make $56,000 a year, but that includes both the senior engineer making $100,000 and the English major working at a call center for minimum wage.

    At least in this particular case, I think the averages hide as much as they reveal.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I am a 10th grade dropout. I earned a CHSPE (high school equivalency degree, NOT a GED) by homeschooling myself. I never attended college, but have taught myself whatever I needed to know to hold whatever job I have aspired to. This high school dropout currently makes just over $60,000 a year.

    It’s not the level of education that restricts one’s earnings, it’s the level of motivation to improve oneself.

  9. Gretchen says:

    You can use numbers to prove anything.

    This also makes a large assumption you can get a job in a field doing something that is your passion. Most people can’t/don’t.

  10. Dana from Alabama says:

    Hmm… I just finished my master’s, yet I’m still around the “without a high school degree” category. That’s a blow to the ego.

    Well, I guess no one becomes a librarian for the money.

  11. J says:

    As much as I would like to disagree with Julie and Gretchen, I can’t. There are indeed degrees that people get where the supply really exceeds the demand. A good friend of mine has been writing novels for some time (like 10+ years), but has yet to get one published, despite a lot of hard work and connections in the publishing industry. He works a day job that pays the bills.

    I also know a number of people who have worked in the video game industry, too — and the hours are long there, and the pay is pretty weak because there are literally thousands of people who will gladly do the work. Sure, there will be some superstars who get name recognition and so on, but just because you want to work in video game development doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands of other people vying for the same slots. Not only do you need to be passionate about it, you also need to be ready to put in long hours and be really sharp to keep your job.

  12. Nicole says:

    The BLS Occupational Outlook handbook (available online) also gives information on employment and ability to get a job in your field.

    It is amazing how many people share the same passions and thus the supply far outstrips the demand for those jobs. In some fields, talent is also very important. In some fields it may be a better idea to indulge in your passion as a hobby and have a day job.

    Educational differences do not take into account that highly motivated people both make more money and get education. It may be that they would make just as much money without the education.

    People don’t always want to be what they think they want to be after they’ve tried it.

    To paraphrase Your Money or Your Life. Your job is not your life. It is just a job. A job is a way to earn income. How you spend your time is your life, and your job is just part of it.

    Shooting for financial independence means you can stop worrying about the income aspect and just worry about your vocation, but you don’t have to find your passion at age 18… sometimes it is easier to do with a million dollars in the bank after 10-20 years of working at something you don’t mind doing. And some people never find their purpose, Princeton, and that’s ok.

  13. Johanna says:

    Some careers require more passion than others. There are some fields where you need to devote huge amounts of time and mental energy to even keep your job, and there are some where you can go in, do your work competently for forty hours a week, and do just fine.

    To give the example I’m most familiar with: Maybe you’re more passionate about academic research than you are about anything else. But unless your passion (and aptitude) can outshine all of the *other* people in academic research, you’re probably better off picking a different career path.

  14. Jessica says:

    I hope some day these figures become true for me. In the meantime I’m living in an area with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, and am underemployed myself. My graduate level of education has gotten me a job paying a whopping $10/hr. Thankfully things look better for my spouse and I’m hopeful about my own future. Oh well.

  15. Leah says:

    I’m surprised that you completely disregarded the cost of the education when you called it an investment. Don’t you necessarily have to consider the return on your investment (tuition, at the very least)? Sure, I’ll make a hefty salary as an attorney, but is it worth the hefty debt? I’m sure that, eventually, it is. What I’d like to know is how long, on average, does it take to see some return on your investment.

  16. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    I 100% agree with Johanna. Not all career paths are the same. Some require more work to be on top than others do.

  17. Gretchen says:

    This also assumes no one else has the same passions you do.

    I went to a collage with tons of education majors and most of them really struggled to find teaching jobs.

    Risk it and go for a masters? Maybe. Again, you assume you find a job using that masters.
    If you don’t, that’s a lot of money and time and effort.

  18. triLcat says:

    There are other considerations here. For example, my passion is writing, so I’ve honed my writing skills. I studied for an MA in creative writing, which landed me a job as a low-level marcom writer. At that job, they paid for me to learn html (from a book, but they bought me the book and I studied it on company time) and they paid for a course in marcom writing. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I could have leveraged that job into either a higher level marcom writing job in that workplace or a better job elsewhere. Marcom writers make a decent living. Is marketing my passion? Not really, but I have a knack for it, and a knack for writing, and if my health situation hadn’t left me too disabled to work, it’s something that can pay the bills. In the meantime, the plan was to work on my great novel(s) at night.

    My point? If you want to be a video game designer, that’s nice. Learn to be a killer programmer so you can design games, and then land yourself a job as a programmer in a software company. It may not be exactly what you’re interested in, but you’ll get skills and be in a related field and not have your family starving.

  19. chacha1 says:

    It’s a great tool to see a set of averages like this, and regardless of the various factors that may account for the “spread” I think it’s useful for people who might be telling themselves higher education isn’t worth it. And there are a lot of them out there.

    I have an M.A. in History like one of the commenters above, and have worked not in academia but in legal support for 20+ years. I’m presently earning just over $30/hr. That’s good money for easy work – and the benefits are worth even more.

    I think people should look at this kind of information, then look at the job market to see what is out there – there are PLENTY of unfilled jobs, they just don’t need people with a GED or a high-school diploma or a liberal-arts B.A. – and then plan their education accordingly.

    There’s a lot more room for passion in your life when you know you have job and income security.

  20. Sara A. says:

    My bachelor’s degree was totally worthless. Moreover, there are a handful of people in our circle of friends in the same situation.

    I feel like the numbers on a bachelors degree salary are low because: 1) there are a minority of people making more than the average who are professionals like engineers, etc and 2) the majority of people with a bachelor’s degree make far less than the average.

    Just my $.02

  21. almost there says:

    OK, now compare these average incomes per education level with the amount of student loans taken and the total debt incured over the life of the loans to achieve these degrees and post the nex income or loss. Numbers can be manipulated to achieve any goal. Just look at the laughable CPI and unemployment numbers put out by our dear leaders.

  22. Ely says:

    I think the best thing for just about anyone is to finish high school and take some general ed credits at an inexpensive school. Even a little bit of higher ed will give you an advantage in the job market, and it’s a good balance between no education at all and spending a lot of money on a degree that you don’t love or that doesn’t pay well. When you find your “passion”, or an employer that will pay you for school, you can go finish that BA or continue on however you like. In the meantime you’ll have had a paying job and some real-world experience, best of both worlds. I have a co-worker who did precisely this: she had an associates degree from her youth, and finally got her BA in her 40’s when her employer offered to pay for it. It got her a little more money at her current job and now she looks better to other employers should she choose to or have to find a new job in the same field.

  23. Marle says:

    I think that higher education is worth it, but you can’t just go into it blind. You have to know the field is right for you, and more importantly you have to know how to work the field. Like Chacha1 makes good money w/ a history MA because he found his way in legal. I love history and I’ve taken many history classes just for fun, but I never considered majoring in it because I don’t believe I’d find a job I liked and paid well in that field. I have an associate’s in computer networking, and before I had that my best job was making $9 an hour, which would be ~$20k a year, if I had kept it all year. (I took some time between HS and college, so I gave a fair shot at working w/o a degree, but I really couldn’t hack it). The Monday after I finished my classes for my associate’s I started a job paying $32k a year. Three years later, I’m making $40k, great benefits, and my employer’s covering part of the costs of my bachelor’s degree. After getting that degree, I should only have $30k in student loans, including the associate’s degree. Much better to have $30k in loans than be stuck making $9 an hour. But, it depends on what your skills are and what you could do with a degree.

  24. Troy says:

    This entire post is largely based on the assumption of working for someone else.

    But for those desire to be self-employed the “value” of an education is somewhat different.

    I have an MBA from a top school. It is nice to have, but contributes zero to my business I own and run. If I had to do it over, I would have passed on the 6 years of school.

    For those who desire to be self employed, I feel that most college is a waste of time and money. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the experience but the opportunity cost of the time, the fees for school, etc for 4-6 years is massive.

    Starting at age 19, earning $30K self employed and not spending $20K on schooling is a $50K swing. Multiply for 4-6 years equals $200-300K at the beginning of your career.

    Live little, save alot and by age 25 acheivers can have six figures banked. Plus their own profitable business up and running.

  25. GC says:

    too bad I only needed a HS diploma for the job I have and the salary I make. . . I better find something else to do

  26. Correlation is not causation. Education is not the key to a job. It is more correct to say that many people try to get the highest degree they have the intelligence or drive to achieve simply because the “education is good dogma” is so prevalent. What really earns money though is that very drive/intelligence. Not a piece of paper from an institution.

  27. Maureen says:

    There was a recent local job fair to staff a new retirement facility. The education requirement for the receptionist position was a bachelor’s degree. Certainly the job didn’t require that level of education but there were so many applicants they could set the bar as high as they wanted.

  28. Michelle says:

    So what exactly do you *do* if you don’t have a bachelors degree and wish to apply for a job? It’s not like you can just walk right in with no education and expect to be considered.

    You need some experience to give people information about how good a worker you are, and that’s not easy to do without a college education. Sure, you can learn to program by night and have your day job at retail. You can create things in your spare time, but you won’t have the same ability to expand your critical thinking skills as a full time student would because you’d be so focused on staying above water money-wise.

  29. Marle says:

    Troy, how does one start a business making $30k a year at age 19?

  30. Matt says:

    I agree with Trent’s last sentiment about the matching up of education and passion. I could have gone into a math field based on my natural aptitude for this, but I chose English and writing as my college major because they are passions of mind.I’ve found as a result I have enormous flexibility in terms of career choices because of the well rounded education I received.

    Keep up the great work Trent- providing us with your opinions and full statistics to back up your thoughts.

  31. RJK says:

    If you haven’t seen this, it’s very insightful. Might just change your thinking as regards learning, education and life.

  32. Vtcouponqueen says:

    My husband is a Mason and makes just over 100,000 per year including his health ins, pension, annuity. He only see about 65,000 in his pay but the health ins is amazing! He would never make that in MN where we lived for 10 years(the location issue). Now after 25 years of doing this his body is hurting. Our oldest son has chosen the expensive college route(RPI)on partial scholarship and won’t make what his father makes without his masters in Physics. But his health will probably last him longer. I guess what I am saying is that the good jobs without the degrees very often come with deep sacrifices that have to be made.

  33. Brian Driggs says:

    I’ll buy into education being valuable, but the long term costs associated with higher education are fast making it a poor investment imo.

    The degree alone does not translate to higher earnings. It is the degree combined with relevant experience which does so. A degree without experience is just another debt, likely greater than your parents paid for their first home.

    How might that $45k/yr salary with a $600/mo payment to mafiosa Sallie Mae for the next 20 years compare to a $30k/yr position without the debt?

    A degree might help those who wish to be an career employee in the rat race, but for those who seek to join the race as a player, I don’t see a degree as being worth the investment.

    The cost of education is increasing faster than even oil, while the rate at which classroom content becomes obsolete keeps a close pace. We are paying more for degrees which signify completion of testing on materials out of date before commencement.

    I favor a lifelong commitment to personal learning. Mentorship, skills development in the real world, and a spirit of entreprenurship to make full use of that ever adapting knowledge every day.

  34. Troy says:

    Marle: “Troy, how does one start a business making $30k a year at age 19?”

    Virtually any labor trade. Construction, electrician, plumbing, roofing, guttering, brick, concrete, lawn mowing, landscaping, sprinkler system companies, mechanic, dent repair, truck driving, etc.

    Virtually most labor intensive professions. They don’t require a college degree. Maybe some specialized training.

    Or…Financial advising, insurance sales, etc.

    I have clients who have done many of these, and they all have large incomes and no school debt and work for themselves.

  35. Crystal says:

    My husband and I have bachelor’s degrees and earn $35k and $43k respectively. He’s finishing up grad school this summer but is only looking at $45k – $50k a year as a school librarian.

    It’s the job, not the degree…you just sometimes need the degree to get the job. But a college education does not guarantee anything (see our salaries above).

  36. Liam says:

    Correlation does not equal causation. Smarter people are more likely to go to college and get more advanced degrees. People are basically pre-selected by intelligence.

    There’s little evidence that people of equal intelligence with different degrees make more money.

    Disclaimer: I have a bachelors degree and am proud of it. However, I went to college for the fun, connections, and learning, not for the degree.

  37. Ramiro says:

    One thing that is important to consider is that education does not equal academic institutions. You can get an education by reading the books on your own. This is how Lincoln became a lawyer, and how ancient philosophers use to do it as well. Of course, for some jobs the requirements are that you possess the paper certificate, but what I am trying to say is that a person should always get educated, regardless of whether that person attends a brick and mortar school.

  38. jim says:

    Troy, It doesn’t change your point and sorry to be nitpicky, but I’d argue one detail… you can’t generally start a business in a skilled trade like electrician or plumber at age 19. (least not in my state) It generally takes a few years to get to journeyman level in a skilled trade. You can however start a career in construction at 19 as an apprentice making decent $ and then work up to owning your own business after a few years.

  39. Marle says:

    Starting your own business requires money up front. Also knowledge which most 19 year olds don’t have, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they do. Labor trades require tools. Mechanics require thousands of dollars in tools, and that’s even if they work for an employer for any decent wage, let alone if they’re going to have their own business and do anything more complicated than oil changes in their parents’ garage. Insurance salesman? Need licenses for that. The tests cost hundreds of dollars, depending on what you want to sell, and that doesn’t include the classes or at least books to study for them. Yes, you can find a company that will sponser you, but if they do you can’t use the licenses with any other insurance company. So much for your own business.

    The main expense with starting your own business is marketing. My husband has just become an insurance agent (was a mechanic) and if he didn’t have unemployment, savings from his prior jobs, and me to pay the bills and buy food, he would not be able to do this. He spends all day thinking of ways to advertise, making fliers and displays, calling people, visiting businesses, and all sorts of things. It’s not easy, and while we expect long term income from this, we aren’t expecting $30k this year. Any 19 year old who got into this thinking they would make $30k the first year is incredibly naive.

    There are career paths available to those who don’t go to college, but they do not involve starting a business at 19 and making $30k the first year, unless your parents are very rich and giving and you are very lucky and smart.

  40. Excellent post! Well said #6

    “Because ridicule is the most effective form of education”

  41. norwell105 says:

    I think this kind of historical perspective is interesting, but needs updating for current costs. I live in the Northeast. I went to college for a BS at about $3,000 per year. That same college is close to $40,000 per year now. A typical student is looking to spend over $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree. The parents I know have not saved this kind of money for each of their kids. So, assume we have 1/2 of the cost sitting on the student when they graduate. I am not sure that any of the salaries mentioned above will get the student out of their parent’s house anytime soon.

  42. Sara says:

    It seems like educational requirements for jobs keep increasing. A bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement for most decent jobs, and now a lot of fields require a master’s. It’s probably because so many people are getting bachelor’s degrees now that they’re flooding the market.

    I think it’s dangerous to make personal conclusions from such broad statistics, though. Just because the average person with a higher degree makes $19k/year more than the average person with a bachelor’s degree does NOT mean that you will make $19k more if you go back to school to get a master’s. I have lots of coworkers who never went to college and make more than the average worker with a higher degree — and they didn’t have to take out student loans. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking more education guarantees them more income, and they end up wasting their money and going into debt without getting the return they expect.

  43. J says:

    While I do agree with Troy’s broad point, that learning a trade can be a route to financial success, there are definitely the licensing and training requirements. In addition, if you are in a place where there is a strong union influence, that can have an effect on both the availability of work as well as your progression to higher employment levels.

    And, of course, labor-intensive industries demand a lot of hard work. Not to mention that some of them can face extreme pressure from outsourcing. Sure, we do need people to do local construction, but a lot of other skilled trades that relate to manufacturing (machining, toolmaking, etc) are going to China or India if they aren’t there already. The cost of labor is so much lower and the work quality can be top notch that even with shipping costs, getting a tool machined in China can be very inexpensive.

    Not to mention, of course, that an 18-21 year old is far more likely to blow that paycheck on something frivolous rather than building a business. That age group isn’t exactly known for their depths of wisdom (myself included) :)

  44. Allison says:

    I have a bachelors degree and have been at my job in my field for the past five years making $43,000. This is much lower than the average yet amongst the people I know I am doing well.

    I recently decided to go back to school to persue a degree in something I was more passionate about but hit a road block when I found that in order to get the degree I would have to go to school full time for at least 1 year (-$43,000) pay part-time tuition for 3 years (-$40,200) then take an intership position making $12 an hour for two more years before I could be licensed. (A -$18,040 pay-cut from what I make now) To in the end make a salary of about $50k an increase of just $8k with my masters degree. The cost would be $101,240 for a job that would only earn me $8k extra each year.

  45. Edwin | Finantage says:

    I agree the numbers are flawed because… well they are statistics. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t fairly accurate. People with degrees definitely earn more on average even though that average may be skewed due to profession, region,etc.

    But I think the important piece of information missing here is the causality. It’s not the case that some lazy guy who gets himself a degree will suddenly start earning more on average. A degree is partially an indicator of the effort and ability to succeed of the holder.

    In other words, a person who will naturally do better in their career is more likely to get a degree, not the other way around.

  46. jim says:

    Another detail: The unemployment rate in construction industry is 24.9% right now and just 4.9% for people with a college degree.

  47. Matt Maresca says:

    I was an economics major at Drew University, a small private school in New Jersey. It was very expensive. I’ve worked the four years since as a personal trainer. I plan on launching a career in music. I’m also starting up my online business. Has my education directly influenced my earning potential? No, but that’s not what college was about for me. I got a BA degree which would have been great had I went to work on Wall Street. But the reality is college helped me learn how to think for myself. This is invaluable, much more than just a degree!

  48. lurker carl says:

    Going back to the original question in this post’s title, “What is an education really worth?”

    It’s absolutely worthless if you don’t or can’t use the knowledge.

  49. Troy says:

    I don’t disagree that there are always obstacles to starting a business, but to say it can’t be done without “rich parents” is being naive.

    It does take licensing to be an insurance agent but the initial fee’s are minimal when compared to tuition. Maybe $500 tops.

    Certain skilled trades do require an apprenticeship, but it still pays rather than paying.

    There are several other options for enterprising young people to make money besides the examples I gave. And $30K is quite achieveable if they work hard.

    self employed, contract labor, 1099…these are all very real possibilities at age 19 or 20. I see them every day.

    Basically any industry where you are paid based on performance or accountability will generate a nice income for someone regardless of age.

    Both my wife and I are highly educated. Her career demand it. Mine does not. Even so,
    I will encourage my boys to follow their desires, and if that does not include college that is fine with me.

    I have a client who started mowing lawns in high school with one $100 mower and a $20 trimmer. After graduation he went full time mowing, then eventually branching out into landscaping a few years later. He is now 28 and his company revenues are over a million dollars.

    He is smart, but made his own luck.

  50. Jonathan says:

    I believe these numbers are misleading. The numbers are being used to show that having a diploma or degree results in higher pay. This isn’t what the numbers really show, however. The numbers show that people with diplomas or degrees tend to work at higher paying jobs. If you want to work as a cashier at Walmart, a college degree isn’t going to get you a higher salary. If you want to work as a computer programmer, on the other hand, you can make just as much without a degree (or diploma in some cases) depending on the situation. Sure, some companies might require a degree, but there are plenty that do not. By starting your own business or doing project based contracting it isn’t even necessary to have a high school diploma.

    As others have mentioned, in many cases individuals who get a college degree are simply the ones most likely to go after higher paying jobs. That says more about the type of people who get degrees (especially graduate level) than it does about the actual value of the degree itself.

  51. Amateur says:

    The study is also flawed because it does not break down professional versus liberal arts types of degrees and the college rankings. The graduate with a BE from MIT who made it through the program with all passing grades will earn a high salary unless he/she has serious personality or other undisclosed issues.

    A BA from a no name college without internship opportunities either through campus recruitment or campus support, will be a really rough struggle – these are the grads that end up working retail jobs. Some schools have serious recruitment programs and co-op programs, but many do not.

    I think the modern argument for higher education is really because everyone has at least a BA/BS type of thing on their resume, it is just less of an advantage to not have it. The market is competitive, and young people do need to stay current and competitive unless they are extremely lucky to inherit a profitable family business or will be vetted into the union trade via family ties.

  52. Dee says:

    College fees in the Northeast are ‘criminal’. Range is $80K in state colleges to $200K private schools. How are parents expected to find that kind of money? What job can justify that kind of debt? This generation will be crippled with debt for years to come….

  53. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with the point about factoring in the cost of education. My husband is a physical therapist with a doctorate degree. Even with only three years of experience, his base salary exceeds the range in the article. But because of his $500+ student loan payment each month, our lifestyle does not reflect this.

  54. Brad says:

    Having worked with college students for 20+ years (and now having my own child in college), I especially like the last part of your post: PASSION is key to finding a job that you are good at and enjoy! I just wish some of those career assessments were more specific about employment probabilities….

  55. Jerry Jennings says:

    I read with interest your comments on the Census Burea report on educational attainment. This was one of an annual series of reports on educational attainment based on data from the March supplement to the Current Population Survey that I authored when I worked at Census. In the 1990s we also did a report titled “What’s it Worth?” analyzing the effect of education on income. Data on social and economic characteristics of the population from the Current Population Survey, a monthly labor force survey used to measure employment by the Labor Department, are useful to policy makers in a wide range of areas. Other subjects you might find interesting include marital status and families and households

  56. Jerry Jennings says:

    I must make a correction to the above reply. It is true that over the years that I worked at the Census Bureau I authored many reports on educational attainment and school enrollment,but my claim to have authored the 2007 report you referred to, is not true. I retired from the Bureau in 1993, and in the course of my comment simply forgot the date of the report you wrote about. Sorry. Getting old, ‘ya know.

  57. NCLibrarian says:

    @Dana from Alabama: I hope you are in an entry-level librarian position. As a librarian myself, I know you can make much more than that, even without being in management. My salary is in the upper 40s, but my first job offer out of library school (6 years ago) was in the 20s–I turned it down, which turned out to be a wise move. Don’t be afraid to look for other jobs in the library field. You can definitely earn more than you are currently.

  58. Holly says:

    I have a $55,000 higher education (B.S.) and my husband has less than an associate’s degree. I’ve been without a salary as a SAHM for over 12 years, while my husband earns $110,000/yr. Go figure.

  59. Sasha says:

    As some other people pointed out, the loans make a huge difference. If you make 10k more a year with a bachelors, but you have 30k in student loans, you’re going to be pushing most of that excess salary towards your students loans.

    Also, though, it is often *harder* to find a job the higher a degree you have because those who hold those jobs already are not retiring due to the economy and what few positions there are with those qualifications are fiercely fought for. Top that with the fact that every lower paying job will now see you as over qualified and you now have a flinch-worthy situation.

  60. One of the biggest challenges when counseling college students is helping them find the right degree program for them. I often find they are chasing the money rather than going for a career they will love. I always tell them to find a field they are interested in and the money will follow.

    I’ve also found that the choice of college does not make a huge difference in salary, especially when getting your undergraduate degree. I went to a small state school ($3,000 a year for tuition) for my undergraduate degree. This did not make a difference in my field (accounting). I was still offered jobs at a number of very prestigious firms when I graduated.

  61. Karen says:

    My husband is a high school drop out. I am a teacher with my masters degree. Until just a few years ago he still made more than I did. Finally, I have passed him – he says my potential is finally kicking in.

  62. Marquita Martin says:

    I have spent a fortune getting a Master’s degree in social work and cannot find a job. I am in my late 50’s, have a little experience in the field. I am too expensive to hire: I don’t have enough experience to go with the advanced degree and I’m too old with an advanced degree to be hired at the Bachelor’s level. I know many people with associate degrees who make twice what I made as a social worker. It took me six years to rack upmassive debt and be unemployed. Not a good trade-off. I should have become an x-ray tech, I guess. My kids are all college-age, and I can’t honestly recommend it to them, especially since they are all the artistic type. No well-paying interests for them such as engineering or computers. They would be better off working at Six Flags over Texas, I think.

  63. Chris says:

    If you are going it on your own ( IE Student Loans ) College is a poor economic choice. The cost is far higher than the reward in most cases.

    Just an associates degree can cost $50k. Meaning it will take about 6 years to make up the initial investment. If you didn’t work full time while going to school that tacks on another 66k, or 8 years, just to catch up. But you also have to consider the interest on the student loans, which skews things even further.

    Here is a good article on the return on investment. http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/CollegeAndFamily/CutCollegeCosts/is-a-college-degree-worthless.aspx

    I honestly wish I hadn’t gotten my Bachelors. I have a friend that went into electrical work right out of high school. I decided to get a degree in Electrical Engineering. 7 years on he makes almost twice what I do, and has much more saved towards retirement.

  64. I think majoring in something you are passionate about is overrated.

    I sure liked getting my Theatre/Fine Art degree, it was fun, but I’m never going to get a job in that field in this area. I should have gone into nursing.

    My current job will pay my tuition if I want to go back to school to pursue a finance related major…but at this point in my life I just don’t wanna do more school.

    Why do a lot of critical decisions get made when you are 18 and temporarily stupid? :-)

  65. Mike says:

    An exception in many states, at least in mine, is educators. I am a teacher with 15 years in the classroom and a master’s degree. My income is well below the average of someone who has the type of education I do…

    $75K? I wish. Try $42K and going down.

  66. Russ H says:

    “An” good education?! This from an educated blogger? Ha! Education, beyond the obvious core reading, writing, arithmetic, and science is overvalued. People acquire them in order to make more money for themselves doing inane things that produce nothing. It’s a big insider scam, ending with the threat of not getting a ‘regular’ job unless you’ve paid for an elaborate and expensive education. Furthermore, education is being wasted on the dumb. Let’s focus on getting the brightest of the bright educated, while the rest of us just use our noggins to accomplish our day to day tasks, called work.

  67. Russ H says:

    I’m with Tammy. These decisions are too important to be left up to kids. Especially at the time in their lives when they are newly exposed to the ‘debt’ side of capitalism. Let’s create a better, more fair, education system based on advanced curriculums for those that intellectually and academically qualify by entrance exams.

  68. Ariana says:

    The colleges and universities should stop peddling false hopes about earnings potential for every piece of paper they sell. These institutions are not teaching people what it really takes to earn back what a person borrows just to attend these “adult day-care centers”.

    Best thing to learn is the value of hard work and a frugal lifestyle. But such lessons can only bankrupt these academic “adult day-care centers” with non-profit tax status.

  69. Wil says:

    I’m sure this has been covered several times already, but I want to put in my $.02.

    My wife and I were both high school graduates. We made very good money together. I got a wild hair about hating my job so I went to school (because they require teachers to have degrees). Now my wife makes very good money and I paddle as hard as I can to survive. I’ve more than cut my salary in half, and California teachers are extremely well paid.

    If you can do what you want to do and afford to support yourself, it doesn’t matter whether you are educated or not. Too many young people today waste money on education because it is social convention. They would do better working for a while and if they decide to go to college paying for it out of pocket. Student loans are bad news.

  70. Hi Trent!

    Thanks for the great post, lots of great information and a strong case for continuing education. I’m happy you were able to find us at http://www.payscale.com and use some of our data. If there’s anything we can help with such as providing content for future posts (charts, calculators, etc), please let me know.


  71. sir jorge says:

    i hate these statistics

    i got a degree, and have a wealth of experience, yet i have no job, no prospects, nothing.

    my annual income right now is $0 so the stats make me sad

  72. M says:

    The wide range of programmer salaries is NOT due to the programmers’ skills. More skilled programmers will earn more, sure, but the average embedded systems programmer makes thousands more than your average web programmer. There’s a very wide range of programming specialties, and the one you choose will have a big impact on your income. I imagine this is true for a lot of careers — doctors, lawyers, and engineers come to mind.

  73. Useless knowlecdge says:

    I myself have a Bachelors degree and I can honestly tell you that most of the things I learned in school (highschool and college) have no impact on my life whatsoever. The discipline required to gain all this useless knowledge is more important then the useless knowledge itself. Seriously folks, how many people here find algebra, trigonometry, or calculus useful after highschool? I’d wager that most do not unless they pursue a profession that requires those disciplines (chemistry comes to mind here). Most of the useful skills I have were not learned in school. I think school is important, but I think it should focus on things that would actually help you in life. Math related to business and finance, how to find an apartment, buying a car, interviewing for a job, banking and finance in general. Of that list I think the art of sucessful interviewing is the most important, but it is something that was sadly not taught in any school I went to. I also disagree with the notion that you should enter a profession that you love. You should enter a profession that you perform better then the next guy, that is what will give you an edge in salary.

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