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6 Charts That Show the Value of a College Education

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If you view a college degree as an investment in your future, it makes sense to want to obtain the maximum possible return on your investment. However, to quantify the value of a college education, you must consider several different factors.

What Are the Different Types of College Degrees and How Do They Affect Your Earning Potential?

The media often uses the phrase “college degree” to refer to any form of post-secondary education, but there are actually several different degrees you can earn.

An associate degree is normally awarded by a community college after two years of full-time study, although some programs may have an accelerated program that allows students to earn their degree more quickly. Different types of associate degrees include:

  • A. (Associate of Arts)
  • S. (Associate of Science)
  • A.S. (Associate of Applied Science):
  • E. (Associate of Engineering):
  • A.A. (Associate of Applied Arts):
  • P.S. (Associate of Political Science)

A bachelor’s degree customarily requires four years to complete, with the first two years being comprised primarily of general education classes and the last two years focusing on courses related to the student’s major. Often, students who want to earn a bachelor’s degree complete general education courses at a community college and transfer to the school of their choice as juniors. Types of bachelor’s degrees include:

  • A. (Bachelor of Arts)
  • S. (Bachelor of Science)
  • F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts)
  • B.A. (Bachelor of Business Administration)
  • Arch. (Bachelor of Architecture)

Master’s degrees are graduate level programs that are completed after you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree. Types of master’s degrees include:

  • A. (Master of Arts) or M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts)
  • S. (Master of Science)
  • Res. (Master of Research)
  • Phil. (Master of Philosophy)
  • M. (Master of Laws)
  • B.A. (Master of Business Administration)

Types of Master's Degrees Include: M.A. (Master of Arts) or M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) S. (Master of Science) Res. (Master of Research) Phil. (Master of Philosophy) M. (Master of Laws) B.A. (Master of Business Administration)

Doctorate degrees are the most advanced academic degrees. Types of doctorate degrees include:

  • PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
  • D. (Doctor of Medicine)
  • D. (Doctor of Education)
  • D. (Juris Doctor)

In most cases, students work for several years after earning an associate degree or bachelor’s degree before entering a graduate level program. It’s also quite common for workers to return to school for additional training if they have an employer who offers a tuition reimbursement program. To meet the needs of students balancing schoolwork with full-time jobs, and family obligations, many graduate level programs now offer classes in the evening, on the weekends, or online.

In 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median weekly earninif yougs for full time workers ages 25 and over were as follows:

Education Level Weekly Earnings
Doctoral Degree $1,623
Professional Degree $1,730
Master’s Degree $1,341
Bachelor’s Degree $1,137
Associate Degree $798
Some College, No Degree $738
High School Diploma $678
Less Than a High School Diploma $493

Although this data suggests that degrees requiring longer times to complete automatically result in the highest earning potential, this is not always the case. Today, many employers care more about the skills you can bring to the table than how long you’ve spent in school. In fact, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has found that nearly 30% of Americans with associate degrees make more than those with bachelor’s degrees. This can be attributed to a demand for people with middle level skills requiring more training than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. Examples of well-paying middle skill jobs that can be obtained with an associate degree include lab technician, paralegal, machinist, draftsman, or radiation therapist.

When discussing the average earnings of workers with differing education levels, it’s important to also consider the opportunity cost of earning an advanced degree as well as the additional student loan debt involved. For example, a physician must attend at least four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and a three- to eight-year residency program before he or she begins earning that coveted six-figure salary. He or she is also likely to have $180,000 in student loan debt to repay, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. In comparison, a licensed vocational nurse or licensed practical nurse requires only one year of training and earns a potential salary of $42,490 while still reserving the option to become a registered nurse or licensed nurse practitioner at a later date.

If you're eager to begin earning an income and wish to keep your debt level to a minimum, choosing a post-secondary education program that will allow you to begin work quickly might be a better choice.

If you’re eager to begin earning an income and wish to keep your debt level to a minimum, choosing a post-secondary education program that will allow you to begin work quickly might be a better choice. Certificate, diploma, or associate degree programs are a particularly good value when they offer credits that can be transferred if you decide to further your education later in your career.

How Does a College Education Affect Your Risk of Unemployment?

Post-secondary education helps students develop skills in critical thinking, communication, and problem solving. These attributes make them highly prized employees, even if they end up working in jobs outside their field.

A college education has long been shown to greatly reduce an individual’s risk of unemployment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the risk of unemployment decreases as a worker’s education level increases.

Education Level Unemployment Rate
Doctoral Degree 1.7%
Professional Degree 1.5%
Master’s Degree 2.4%
Bachelor’s Degree 2.8%
Associate Degree 3.8%
Some College, No Degree 5.0%
High School Diploma 5.4%
Less Than a High School Diploma 8%

Since a lower risk of unemployment correlates to a lower risk of living in poverty, those with post-secondary education are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and chronic illness. Their children are less likely to experience developmental or behavioral problems and are more likely to meet benchmarks for satisfactory academic progress.

How Has the Value of a College Education Changed Over the Years?

Today’s competitive economy has made the value of a college education greater than ever before. Compared to previous generations, millennials have the widest earnings gap between college-educated workers and those with only a high school diploma.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013 a typical millennial with a high school diploma earned $28,000 per year, while a millennial with a bachelor’s degree or higher earned $45,500 per year. This gap of $17,500 per year is likely to increase as the college-educated millennials progress in their careers and gain lucrative promotions. In comparison, members of the silent generation in 1965 had earnings of $31,384 in inflation adjusted dollars for those with a high school diploma and earnings of $38,833 in inflation adjusted dollars for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Median Annual Earnings Among Full-Time Workers Ages 25-32, in 2012 Dollars
Generation High School Diploma Two-Year Degree Bachelor’s Degree or More
Silent Generation $31,384 $33,655 $38,833
Early Boomers $32,299 $36,498 $41,989
Late Boomers $30,525 $34,595 $44,770
Generation X $27,883 $32,173 $43,663
Millennials $28,000 $30,000 $45,500

The demand for educated workers shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the list of fastest growing occupations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is filled with jobs requiring some form of post-secondary education.

Occupation 2014-2024 predicted growth rate
Wind Turbine Service Technicians 108%
Occupational Therapy Assistants 43%
Physical Therapist Assistants 41%
Physical Therapist Aides 39%
Home Health Aides 38%
Commercial Divers 37%
Nurse Practitioners 35%
Physical Therapists 34%
Statisticians 34%
Ambulance Drivers and Attendants 33%
Occupational Therapy Aides 31%
Physician Assistants 30%
Operations Research Analysts 30%
Personal Financial Advisers 30%
Cartographers and Photogrammetrists 29%
Genetic Counselors 29%
Interpreters and Translators 29%
Audiologists 29%
Hearing Aid Specialists 27%
Optometrists 27%


How Does Your Major Affect the Value of a College Degree?

Although it’s tempting to speak of the value of a college degree in general terms, not all degrees offer the same return on investment. Your course of study will greatly affect your earning potential.

According to Time magazine, many of the worst-paying college degrees are in creative fields. Students majoring in visual or performing arts, studio art, or theater and dance often find themselves with heavy student loan debt and poor job prospects due to the highly competitive nature of these professions. In many cases, they must take a day job that’s not related to their course of study so they can afford to pursue their passion at night.

Some of the best-paying jobs go to students majoring in health care areas.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some of the best-paying jobs go to students majoring in health care areas. Health care jobs have a growing demand attributed to the aging population and increasing number of people gaining access to health insurance via the Affordable Care Act. Information technology is another career field with strong job prospects, thanks to the growth of e-businesses and an increase in companies relying on technology to keep their geographically scattered workforce connected.

The top 10 best-paying jobs for community college graduates and their corresponding median annual salaries are:

Job Title Median Annual Salary
Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists $57,370
Electrical and Electronics Engineering Technicians $59,820
Web Developers $63,490
Aerospace Engineering and Operations Technicians $63,780
Diagnostic Medical Sonographers $62,540
Dental Hygienist $71,520
Nuclear Medicine Technologists $72,100
Nuclear Technicians $74,690
Radiation Therapists $80,090
Air Traffic Controllers $122,340


Does It Matter Where You Go to School?

With so many schools to choose from, it’s natural to wonder if it’s worth spending extra to attend an elite college with a prestigious reputation. An article in the Wall Street Journal does an excellent job of answering this question. Authors Eric E. Eide and Michael J. Hilmer found that the perceived prestige of a school matters the most for liberal arts majors in the social sciences, education, and humanities. In comparison, the prestige of a school provides no statistically significant benefit for a student studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Although elite colleges can offer a rewarding educational experience, they’re not a magic bullet for boosting your earning potential.

If the prestige of a college isn’t important, what factors should a student focus on instead? Distinctions such as public versus private and non-profit versus for-profit only refer to the school’s finances, making them poor indicators of quality. Experts agree that the following characteristics are good indicators of whether or not a particular college is right for you:

  • The class sizes are small enough to allow for personalized attention, but large enough to allow you to learn from your peers as well as the instructor.
  • The classes are offered online or at times that fit your schedule.
  • The instructors are well-respected in their fields and readily available to answer any questions you might have.
  • The college provides access to counselors who can offer assistance preparing a resume, polishing interview skills, and locating job leads.
  • The college has an established track record of producing alumni who’ve gone on to enjoy successful careers.
  • The campus environment is one you feel matches you personal learning style.

What Are the Non-Financial Benefits of Going to College?

Aside from providing a boost in earning potential and lowering your risk of unemployment, having a college degree is likely to increase your job satisfaction.

A survey of employed workers ages 25-32 by the Pew Research Center found that education increases the odds that a worker will be “very satisfied” with his or her current job.

Education Level Percent Expressing High Job Satisfaction
Bachelor’s Degree or Higher 53%
Some College or Associate Degree 36%
High School Graduate or Less 37%

In addition to reporting the highest levels of job satisfaction, those with post-secondary education are more likely to say they have a career/career-track job and possess the training needed to advance in their position.

Is It Worth It to Go to College?

Deciding to further your education is a commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Earning a college degree can provide a sense of personal accomplishment, as well as a boost in your earning potential. About 90% of college grads from the Pew Research Center study say college was worth the investment, both financially and personally.

About 90% of college grads from the Pew Research Center study say college was worth the investment, both financially and personally.

However, you’ll get the maximum benefit from going back to school if you can answer “yes” to all of the following questions:

  • Have you selected a course of study that matches your interests and abilities as well as the demands of the current job market?
  • Have you selected an accredited school with a reputation for offering quality programs in your field of study, as well as extensive career services to help graduates find their first position?
  • Have you applied for all applicable financial aid programs, including Pell Grants and relevant GI Bill tuition benefits, to minimize your out-of-pocket costs?
  • Have you read your student loan documentation carefully and do you understand what your repayment obligations will be?

If you are interested in learning more about the opportunities Vista College offers, please call us today at 1-866-442-4197 and check out our degree programs.

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