How Much Is a College Degree Worth?

Group of graduates with diplomas on university campus (differential focus)
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The evidence is clear: The more you learn, the more you earn. Statistics show that college graduates earn more, with higher degree levels earning higher salary levels. Americans with college degrees also report several additional positive non-monetary characteristics including healthier lifestyles and more active community involvement.

Median Weekly Salary by Level of Education

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)’s Career Outlook portal provides a plethora of information on the employment outlook, projections, and earnings for Americans with differing educational levels. Their data provides a breakdown of median weekly earnings by education levels, showing the monetary advantages of a college degree.

  • High school diploma: $712
  • Some college, no degree: $774
  • Associate degree: $836
  • Bachelor’s degree: $1,173
  • Master’s degree: $1,401
  • Doctoral degree: $1,743
  • Professional degree: $1,836

Even though the median salary increases significantly based on degree level, keep in mind that these figures only capture a sample and will not hold true in all cases. Also, be careful to evaluate the salary implications for acquiring a particular degree based on your unique strengths and geographic location prior to enrolling in a college program. For example, a young woman with a strong mechanical aptitude who struggles with traditional academics might earn more pursuing an apprentice position as a plumber than by acquiring a bachelor's degree.

By the same token though, demand for particular career paths (and the salaries that employers are willing to pay) may vary significantly depending on where you live. In North Carolina, for instance, a plumber averages $42,530 a year. The same job, however, earns $69,360 in New Jersey and $68,160 in Hawaii. The economic climate of your particular state or region (assuming that you wish to remain in your state of origin) may thus be a key factor in determining whether the expenses associated with a college education are “worth it.”

The specialty area in which you pursue a college degree can also be a factor. Payscale.com breaks down earnings by field of study with petroleum engineering majors topping the list and reporting early career pay of $82,700 annually.

Educational Level and Unemployment

Another way to gauge the value of a degree is to examine the unemployment rate for individuals possessing that credential. According to BLS data, the unemployment rates by educational level were as follows as of April 2018 and clearly show reduced rates of unemployment as the level of education increases.

  • High school diploma: 4.6%
  • Some college, no degree: 4.0%
  • Associate degree: 3.4%
  • Bachelor’s degree: 2.5%
  • Master’s degree: 2.2%
  • Professional degree: 1.5%
  • Doctoral degree: 1.5%

Educational Level and Lifetime Earnings

The Social Security Administration reports that men with a bachelor’s degree earn $900,000 more during a lifetime than men with a high school degree. Women with a bachelor’s degree are estimated to earn $630,000 more than women with a high school degree. Men with a graduate degree earn $1.5 million more on average than high school graduates, while women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more.

Educational Level and Eventual Life Satisfaction

While eventual job security is something every person should consider when weighing the value of college costs, many Americans are also focused upon other, less tangible issues: job satisfaction, work/life balance, and freedom for positive community engagement and outreach.

According to the College Board’s most recent triannual “Education Pays” report, researchers found that college graduates tend to embrace healthier lifestyles than non-college graduates, reducing their eventual health care costs while at the same time allowing them to contribute productively to their communities.

  • 69 percent of college graduates, as opposed to 45 percent of high school graduates, reported exercising each week vigorously
  • 39 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree volunteered, as opposed to 16 percent with a high school diploma
  • More than twice as many college graduates voted in the 2014 midterm election (45 percent) than did high school graduates (20 percent) in the same age group
  • The children of college graduates were more likely to be involved in a variety of educational activities with their families

    The College Board also reports that four-year college graduates who enroll at age 18 and graduate within four years typically earn enough by age 34 in comparison to high school graduates to compensate for four years out of the workforce.