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How Much is a College Degree Worth? [Infographic]

by Ryan Guina

Is a college degree worth the time and expense involved?

Most people automatically say yes, and in many cases they are right. But do most people answer yes because they are trained to believe a college degree is valuable? Or do they truly believe a college degree is the best guarantee for a high paying job? I’m somewhere in the middle.

Last week I went on the record by stating that college degrees are overrated. It’s not that I don’t believe a college degree isn’t valuable, I do. I have a college degree and I know it helped me get my foot in the door to begin my professional career. But I believe some people overvalue a college degree to the extent that they believe a college degree is required to land a high paying job.

The article I wrote gave some examples of high paying jobs which don’t require a college degree. One example is my friend who is an electrician and owns a small business. He brings in roughly $250k per year without a college degree. While these types of jobs exist or in his case, can be created, they aren’t the standard job for a non-college graduate.

How Much is a College Degree Worth?

A college degree can be worth millions over the course of one’s career. A study by the US Census Bureau showed the lifetime earnings of someone with a high school degree topped out, on average, at $1.2 million. A Bachelor’s Degree brought in an average lifetime earnings of $2.1 million, and a Master’s Degree $2.5 million.

The following infographic shows the lifetime value of various levels of scholastic achievement, and related career information. Click on image to expand:

Lifetime value of a college degree

Infographic courtesy of GoBankingRates.com.

Some degrees are more valuable than others

As you can see from the infographic above, a college degree is one valuable piece of paper. In some cases, it can be worth millions of dollars compared to not having a degree. But it’s also important to take these examples in context. There are some very low college paying degrees out there which start off in the low $30,000 range and may barely max out in the mid $40,000 range. That isn’t great money if the degree holder had to take out thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for college. That also doesn’t mean you should shoot for one of the highest paying college degrees if that career field won’t make you happy.

It’s also important to note that a college degree isn’t necessary for a high paying career. There are many high paying jobs which don’t require a degree, especially for those who have a skill that is always in need. The key to remember is this infogaphic represents averages not absolutes.

The Value of a College Degree

Now let’s talk value. A college degree can be worth much more than the difference in lifetime earnings might suggest. A college degree is required for many jobs, sometimes regardless of whether or not the degree actually applies to the job. College degrees are often used as a screening tool on job applications as a means to more quickly select qualified job applicants. All else being equal, most employers will hire the job applicant with the college degree over the applicant without a college degree.

Take a quick look at the infographic again and you will see that on average, there are fewer unemployed individuals with a Bachelor’s Degree (5.2%) compared to those who have no higher than a high school diploma (9.7%). The numbers decrease with each higher level of education.

The value of a college degree may extend to the alumni network, depending on the school. I know several people who were able to get job interviews simply because of the college they attended. In many, but not all, cases they were extended a job offer. You still need the skills to get the job, but a college degree, especially from the right school, can open a lot of doors.

Happiness isn’t a paycheck, but a paycheck helps

Now let’s take a look at the last section of the infographic – happiness. I’ll be the first to admit that money by itself doesn’t equate to happiness. But money is essential for modern life – how happy would you be if you couldn’t afford basic food, clothing, shelter, and transportation? Research has shown that a $40,000 salary serves as a baseline to adequately provide these needs along with a sense of security. Obviously, this varies by region and other factors. A college degree doesn’t guarantee a job, or a $40,000 salary. But it makes it easier to land a job and earn a higher salary.

What are your thoughts on the value of a college degree?


Published or updated August 25, 2010.
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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 danielle

it’s so interesting to me that the research that came out of this shows that final equation — that higher education leads to both happiness and more income, but those two do not equate without the element of education.

i think another takeaway is that for individuals who don’t strive for successfully completing some form of education (i’m including certification, on the job training, etc), the odds are against them.

and i love this: “Happiness isn’t a paycheck, but a paycheck helps.” there are probably many people who would hate to agree with this, but it’s just a fact that you have to find a way to make ends meet in order to not have the burden of worry. then you can truly be happy. great article!!

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2 GBR Briana

I like how you put this Ryan “happiness isn’t a paycheck, but a paycheck helps!” I’ve noticed this personally; when I was out of work, I was more down in the dumps. Now that I’m making steady income, I have noticed my quality of life increasing.

When it comes to a college degree, I’m still on the fence. I’ve done 2 years of college so far and considering whether or not I want to finish. A lot of the jobs in my field are starting to require a degree and/or equivalent experience. I’m getting up to the experience, but I think if I was to get the degree, I’d be that much more over the bar when it comes to being considered for a job.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed (from reports in the news) that a lot of college graduates are having a hard time finding work because companies can’t afford them (mostly people with MA and PhD’s who have lost their jobs).

I think it all depends on the economy of where you live, and where you go to school (some people get hired based on the school they graduated from also). Tough topic, but I like the way you presented it: you don’t NEED it but it can open doors

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3 Ryan

Briana, I would at least look into it. You would be surprised how easy it can be to finish a degree by taking part time classes at night. You can take one or two classes a semester without it impacting your wallet or schedule too much and still finish your degree in a reasonable amount of time. (for the record, I took night classes on a full time basis while I was enlisted in the USAF. I had to work the midnight shift to align my schedule, but I was able to make it work. But the good thing is you don’t have to go all out and take full time classes… you can take your time and finish at your own pace).

It will take awhile, but you will have the degree when you finish and that can make it easier to find work in the future.

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4 Ben

I’m sure a college degree is worth a lot of money, but it isn’t worth more than hard work, acting on your dreams and never giving up.

Otherwise we would never see high school and college drops outs that are out there making the big bucks.

A friend of mine with no college degree made more money last year then all my friends with college degrees combined. I do believe in college, but a degree is only going to get you so far and after that it all boils down you.

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5 J$

I will forever and ever ALWAYS promote getting a college degree – no matter the costs. You probably touched on this in the post (I’ll admit I only skimmed it – A.D.D. and all) but the opportunities you get from it is never ending!!! Not only does it give you the ability to APPLY to jobs that require at least a bachelors degree (where most of the big salaries are), but you learn so much about life in general. There’s really no price tag you can put on all the stuff you learn about YOURSELF while there as well as all the experiences you come across – and I’m not talking about all the parties and beer pong either, although those certainly keep you motivated :) There’s no way I could have gotten to where I am today without getting a college degree, and you better believe I’ll be forcing my future kids to do the same. I don’t even care what in particular they study.

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6 myfinancialobjectives

I agree with Ryan, Briana. I am starting up night classes again to help me in my career, and this is just more undergraduate classes, never mind the MBA courses. Night classes really go by a lot quicker than you think.

I like this message a lot! One thing I wish I would of done is gone to a community college for the first 1-2 years of college, oh and also go to a much less expensive school. I paid out the wazoo for a private Christian college, and I will be paying for it for a while still….

BUT, I am happy:)

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7 Ryan

I’ve been thinking about going back for some more undergrad classes as well. I don’t care about another degree though. I just want the knowledge!

The good news is that I have the GI Bill to help pay for it. The bad news is we are trying to sell our house, and if we do we would move out of the area. I don’t feel comfortable signing up for classes I might have to drop. There is always another semester though. :)

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8 Early Retirement Extreme

I wonder whether these “education vs salary” correlations have been corrected for intelligence and drive. If they haven’t and college is on the “collective mind”, you can’t really conclude anything from the graphs, since college is a widespread default destination for anyone with drive/intelligence; even though it may not be the smartest financial decision.

Unfortunately, the wrong conclusion can easily be drawn, namely, that a college degree will automatically elevate _anyone_ to a better job. Next time you’re at a restaurant, just ask your waiter which college he or she just graduated from.

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9 Ryan

ERE, I believe they are based entirely on information from the US Census Bureau, which only reports numbers, not intelligence and drive. (there is no real quantifiable measurement for those factors anyway, at least not that could be easily employed against the entire population).

You bring up a great point though – a college degree doesn’t guarantee success or a high paying job (or any job for that matter). Intelligence and drive play a big role, along with many other factors. I wrote a little bit about that in this article: Education and Wealth: You Don’t Need a College Degree, But You Need an Education.

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10 Joe Morgan

“Not all degrees are equal”

I think that’s the key. I’ve done quite well with my bachelor’s in engineering, but I have friends who have twice as much student loan debt than I ever had; they have a master’s degree, but that’s the basis for entry level jobs in their profession. I’d say those degrees may not be worth at this point. Unless the open doors, but most of the time there are so many applicants for a single job that it’s a moot point.

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11 Penny

I am pursuing my MBA right now and I am wondering if I have made a mistake. I have been turned down twice in recent bids for jobs at my current workplace. My employer paid for my BSBM. When I questioned didn’t the company see my diploma as an investment for the company, H R replied “Not really.” I guess they saw it merely as a way to pass the time. I thought when we were given the oppurtunity to further our education, they were doing it as an investment in us for the company. Apparently not. I am very discouraged at the moment. I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Management and I am an assembly line worker.

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12 Ryan

Penny, I say keep going for your MBA, and use your experience “on the floor” to help position yourself for a promotion – just keep in mind that sometimes the easiest way to get a promotion is to go to a new employer. But don’t underestimate your experience in the trenches. There are many people in management who don’t have the blue collar experience and don’t think in those terms. Your experience is extremely valuable to the right organization. Continue your schooling and search for the job you believe you can handle. Best of luck!

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13 Robert

Seems that most get a decent job after graduating from college. Unlike me, I’m STILL looking for a career opportunity. I’m no longer a recent graduate. I make $9.25 an hour working graveyards as a security guard. Nobody will hire a grad with a communications degree if they don’t see any advanced work experience. Entry level opportunities are obsolete. So, the “new grad” is expected to have mid-level experience is to get an interview? The catch-22 — degree with no ” real-world experience” is killing me financially. I had hopes of just getting my foot in the door to a relevant career opportunity. But, no. Now, I can only wish to get an interview for something that pays better than $9.25. And because I have dead-end job, the employer treats me like any other low-grade employee. The job market isn’t good now, nor was it when I graduated in 2003. I went back to take more continued education classes to get my self out of the doldrum hourly jobs. My criminal background and credit is fine. But, nobody will hire me based on lack of “real world experience”. And keeping up with technological trends is even more daunting.

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