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Do Higher Degrees Pay Off?

It depends on the field
  • March 11 2012

What is a college degree really worth? Now that three in ten American adults has a bachelor’s degree, it’s natural to question whether education level has a direct correlation to earning power and economic success.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, higher degrees result in higher salaries. But if one looks beyond just education level, the actual earnings are more closely aligned with the field the degree is in. In 2009, the average monthly earnings for an adult with a professional degree were $11,927, while the average monthly earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients were $5,455 and for vocational certificate holders were $3,538.

However, when considering the field of degree in addition to education level, the answer is less straightforward, the Census Bureau notes. In some cases, technical fields can pay off more than higher degrees in nontechnical fields. In 2009, adults with associate’s degrees in computer science and engineering, along with vocational certificate holders in engineering, earned more on average (earned $4,813 per month) than those with bachelor’s degrees in education ($3,806 per month).

People with professional and doctorate degrees in medicine, the natural sciences and law earned the most out of all education level and field of study combinations.

The Census analysis also found that adults that had a GED certificate—instead of a traditional high school diploma—have lower earnings and are less likely to enter college.

In 2009, 16.9 million adults earned a GED certificate to satisfy their high school requirements. While 73 percent of those who received a high school diploma went on to complete at least some postsecondary education, less than half (43 percent) of GED certificate recipients did so. Furthermore, only 5 percent of GED holders earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent of high school diploma holders.

Overall, high school diploma holders earned approximately $4,700 in mean monthly earnings compared with GED certificate holders, who earned $3,100. Still, having a GED certificate is much better than having no high school diploma at all. Those with some high school had mean earnings of about $2,400 a month, and those with only an elementary school education earned an average of about $2,100.


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