Getting a college degree is more important than ever these days if you want to earn a competitive salary.
A college degree makes a huge difference in the salary you can expect when looking for a job, but by just how much? What is a college degree worth in dollars?
The completion of high school opens the first door to your future – having a high school diploma raises the median weekly earnings of an individual from $592 (for those without a diploma) to $746 for someone who did graduate high school.
But that is just the beginning – while those earnings may seem decent for someone just graduating, it is still far less than what you might earn with a bachelor's degree.
High School Diploma Salary vs. College Degree Salary
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics provides hard numbers about salary and unemployment rates for several different levels of education, and the numbers tell the story.
High School Diploma Salary Expectations
Lifetime earnings for those who finish college and get their bachelor's degree far exceed those who only possess a high school diploma.
It's helpful to evaluate earnings over a longer period to illustrate this discrepancy. Most people will work until retirement age, so let's assume you'll spend at least 40 years working at a lower earning potential.
A person who has graduated high school can expect to earn $746 per week, or $38,792 per year. This figure assumes you're working a full-time job, 52 weeks per year. If you work a position that doesn't offer paid vacation time, your earnings will be less when you inevitably take time off for vacation or due to illness.
High school graduates, on average, had unemployment rates around 3.7% in 2019.
Over a lifetime, if you consider all your working years, it adds up to over $1.55 million in earnings, which sounds pretty great.
Bachelor's Degree Salary Expectations
The salary you can expect after earning a college degree will, of course, vary depending on your profession. In terms of salary, you'll earn an average of $1,248 per week, or $64,896 per year – that's $26,104 more per year, or $502 more per week than someone with just a high school diploma.
This adds up to over $2.6 million – a million dollars more – over your lifetime. Furthermore, most people who earn a bachelor's degree are more employable – specifically, they experience an unemployment rate of just 2.2%.
College is a commitment, and it will take time and dedication to earn your degree, but you will enjoy a much higher salary.
Again, when you consider your lifetime earnings (assuming 40 working years), the difference is staggering:
- $1.55 million if you are a high school graduate with no higher learning
- $2.59 million if you obtain your bachelor's degree
Over the long-term, a college diploma will allow you to have greater financial stability.
Disparity in Degree Type and Earnings
Pursuing a degree is, for many, about pursuing their dreams. But if you're planning on going to college, it's essential to take time to decide what your major will be with an eye towards your future income. Specialized degrees can earn significantly more than the figures listed above. For example, a degree in computer science doesn't necessarily mean you have to become a programmer – it could be a stepping stone to a career in information security.
A fast-growing career, life as an information security analyst, will net you a median salary of $99,730 per year with less than five years of experience.
On the other hand, if you choose a degree in fine arts, you are likely to have an initial salary that isn't much higher than that of a person without a degree.
Choosing a high-paying degree and specialization is critical if you wish to maximize the return on your investment. Of course, you also need to consider your unique talents and interests when choosing a degree to pursue.
For example, even if your degree costs you $100,000 to obtain, you would still make nearly $1 million more in lifetime earnings than if you chose a non-degree career path.
How Student Loans Factor In
Going to college is expensive, and it's likely you'll need to take out a student loan to help pay for your education (though government grants and scholarships can certainly help with the costs). Students who have taken on loans may feel as though their decision to pursue an education has set them back financially, especially when factoring in the costs of repaying those loans after they have graduated.
If your friends are all making money at their jobs while you're earning nothing as a student, it can feel like you've made a bad financial decision – but it's not that simple.
A recent report by the College Board shows that a typical 4-year graduate who enrolls after high school and graduates after four years can expect to earn enough money to make up for being out of the workforce for the four years they were a student by the time they turn 33. After that point, their lifetime earnings will grow significantly faster than those without a college degree.