By Tim Stobierski
June 2, 2020
If you’re considering going back to college, you may be considering the various arguments for and against the value of earning a bachelor’s degree.
Many professionals cite “the ability to make more money” as the motivating factor behind why they chose to pursue a college degree. But does earning a college degree actually lead to a higher salary? And if so, how much higher? Is the increase in pay ultimately worth it—worth the time, effort, and money spent earning it?
The short answer is: Yes! Advancing in your education does typically lead to higher annual and lifetime earnings, at all levels of education.
Below, we explore the average salary earned at each educational level so you can better understand your current earning potential and make a smarter decision as to whether or not earning a college degree makes sense for you.
[Editorial Note: All salary data is sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).]
Average Salary by Education Level
Average Salary with Less Than a High School Diploma
Median Weekly Earnings: $592
Median Annual Earnings: $30,784
Average Unemployment Rate: 5.4%
Perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals without a high school diploma or an equivalent (such as a GED) earn the lowest salary compared to all other education levels: $592 per week, or roughly $30,784 per year. These individuals also have the greatest risk for unemployment, with an average unemployment rate of 5.4 percent.
If you haven’t earned a high school diploma, finishing your education or earning a GED can bring substantial benefits, including an average increase in annual income of more than $8,000 along with greater job security. Additionally, earning your high school diploma will further allow you to pursue higher education should you choose, and all of the benefits associated with it.
Average Salary with a High School Diploma
Median Weekly Earnings: $746
Median Annual Earnings: $38,792
Average Unemployment Rate: 3.7%
High school graduates earn an average of $746 per week, or $38,792 annually, and lower their risk of unemployment to 3.7 percent. Simply completing a high school education can increase your expected income by more than $8,000 compared to not earning a high school diploma.
For each level of education that an individual achieves after high school, this earning potential increases. Earning an associate degree brings an average pay increase of more than $7,000, and earning a bachelor’s degree brings an average increase of more than $26,000.
Average Salary with Some College but No Degree
Median Weekly Earnings: $833
Median Annual Earnings: $43,316
Average Unemployment Rate: 3.3%
Individuals who have completed some college courses but did not graduate earn an average of $833 per week or $43,316 annually. This group of students has an average unemployment rate of 3.3 percent.
While these individuals enjoy higher pay and lower unemployment compared to those with only a high school diploma and no college experience, they are unable to realize the benefits associated with earning a degree. By returning to school and earning an associate degree, these individuals can expect to earn an average of $2,808 more than they are currently earning. Completing a bachelor’s degree, however, stands to increase their pay even further, by $21,580 on average.
Average Salary with an Associate Degree
Median Weekly Earnings: $887
Median Annual Earnings: $46,124
Average Unemployment Rate: 2.7%
Those who have completed an associate degree earn an average pay of $887 per week or $46,124 per year. In keeping with the economic trend, their risk of unemployment also decreases compared to those with less education, to 2.7 percent.
Associate degree holders earn more than $7,300 more per year than their peers whose education stopped after high school—a substantial increase, which translates into more than $293,000 over a typical 40-year career. And by advancing from an associate degree to a bachelor’s degree, average annual pay increases by an additional $18,772.
For this reason, it is not uncommon for an individual who has earned an associate degree to go back to school in order to convert their associate degree into a bachelor’s degree and obtain the higher earning potential that typically comes with a four-year degree. Wages aside, because a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for most graduate-level courses, associate degree holders with a desire to pursue more advanced degrees understand that doing so is the next logical step for them to take.
Average Salary with a Bachelor’s Degree
Median Weekly Earnings: $1,248
Median Annual Earnings: $64,896
Average Unemployment Rate: 2.2%
Bachelor’s degree holders earn an average weekly pay of $1,248, or $64,896 per year. Their unemployment rate is 2.2 percent, which is nearly half the unemployment rate of high school graduates.
While each previously mentioned increase in education brought with it at least some increase in pay, the difference in average pay between an associate degree holder and a bachelor’s degree holder is stark. Bachelor’s degree holders will earn an average of $18,772 more each year than associate degree holders. Over the course of a 40-year career, this equates to more than $750,000 in additional income.
Clearly, earning a bachelor’s degree still makes a lot of financial sense. But according to Anna Hughes, Senior Assistant Director of Enrollment Services at Northeastern University, the benefits are more than financial.
“Earning a bachelor’s degree brings a lot of what I call soft skill development,” Hughes says. “I think that learning to work together at a higher level with classmates is a huge opportunity to build self-confidence and resilience, which can be difficult to obtain elsewhere.”
Additionally, if an individual would like to eventually earn a master’s degree, doctorate, or professional degree, it is almost impossible to do so without first earning a bachelor’s degree. In this way, earning a bachelor’s degree can serve as a means of unlocking further educational opportunities and the benefits they bring with them.
While bachelor’s degrees are often referred to as four-year degrees, accelerated bachelor’s degree programs can be completed in as little as 12 to 18 months, allowing students to realize their benefits even more quickly.
Average Salary with a Master’s Degree
Median Weekly Earnings: $1,497
Median Annual Earnings: $77,844
Average Unemployment Rate: 2.0%
Individuals who continue their education to the graduate level and earn their master’s degree earn an average wage of $1,497 per week or $77,844 per year. At 2.0 percent, their unemployment rate is slightly lower than bachelor’s degree holders.
The wage gap that exists between master’s and bachelor’s degree holders is less substantial than the one between an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree. Even still, master’s degree holders earn nearly $13,000 more per year than four-year degree holders—a substantial return on investment for most graduates. And just as earning a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for earning a master’s degree, earning a master’s degree is typically required if your eventual goal is to earn a doctorate or professional degree.
Average Salary with a Doctorate or Professional Degree
Median Weekly Earnings, Professional Degree: $1,861
Median Annual Earnings, Professional Degree: $96,772
Average Unemployment Rate, Professional Degree: 1.6%
Median Weekly Earnings, Doctoral Degree: $1,883
Median Annual Earnings, Doctoral Degree: $97,916
Average Unemployment Rate, Doctoral Degree: 1.1%
Doctoral and professional degrees are often termed “terminal degrees” because they typically represent the furthest that an individual can take their education in a given discipline. As such, they’re often discussed together in terms of pay and employability.
Those with a professional degree earn an average of $1,861 per week, or $96,772 annually, and have a low rate of unemployment at 1.6 percent. Doctorate holders earn an average of $1,883 per week, or $97,916 annually, and enjoy the lowest rate of unemployment at 1.1 percent.
The increase in average pay that comes from a master’s degree holder advancing to a doctoral or professional degree is comparable in magnitude to the difference that comes from an associate degree holder earning a bachelor’s degree. Individuals with professional degrees earn almost $19,000 more than master’s degree holders on average; for individuals with doctorates, that number is over $20,000. Over the course of a 40-year career, this means that those with professional degrees and doctorates can earn as much as $760,000 and $800,000 more than their peers with master’s degrees, respectively.
Making the Right Decision for Your Future
The salary figures and unemployment rates above demonstrate that, for many individuals, earning a bachelor’s degree (or graduate degree) leads to a positive return on investment. But according to Hughes, that isn’t enough to conclude that earning a college degree is necessarily the right path for everyone.
“I don’t think everyone needs a bachelor’s degree,” Hughes says. “For example, a lot of individuals who go to vocational schools probably have the background they need to be successful in their trade. Of course, to progress in their career, they might have to go back to school, but that should be an individual decision that you make for yourself.”
That being said, if you do decide that earning a degree will help you reach your personal and professional goals, it’s important that you find a program that aligns with those goals.
Hughes specifically recommends that students evaluating potential programs should examine the school’s price point and the type of academics being offered. The program that you choose needs to fall within your budget, offer you the flexibility and support you’ll need to complete your degree while juggling other responsibilities, and arm you with the experience that will help you land a job after graduating.