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Salary Differences Between College Graduates and Non-College Graduates

Higher Education Articles December 2, 2015

Those with only a high school diploma do not earn as much as those with a college education. Promotions and greater job opportunities are available to college graduates. Although college graduates do have a higher earning potential, some are still not sure if the risk is worth the reward.

Salary Information for College Graduates and Non-College Graduates

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has conducted a biennial analysis of employee earnings data, ordered by education level. According to the findings, those who hold a college degree attract a much bigger salary than those who do not. Beginning in the mid-1980s, potential wages have been increasingly influenced by education; an average salary earned by bachelor’s degree holders is 66% higher than that earned by those who hold only a high school diploma. Over the last twenty years, while there has been an increase in the wages of college-educated workers, there has also been a decrease in the wages earned by individuals with only a high school education.

Return on Investment in a Degree

A college education costs a lot. It is natural for prospective students to wonder if they will get a good return on their investment in education in terms of expected earnings especially as they may have to incur debt to pay for it. In 2002, those with a bachelor’s degree were projected to earn $2.7 million over their lifetime, 75% more than the earnings of those without a bachelor’s degree (Census Bureau).

Annual Pay scales and Degree Types

Median employee income has been differentiated by the NCES’ Digest of Education Statistics on the basis of education level. Higher median salaries are available to 4-year college graduates instead of those with a high school education. In the table below, the impact on earnings through factors such as gender of the degree holder and the type of college degree held have been demonstrated:

Type of Degree Annual Median Salary Gender
High School Diploma $40,050 Men
High School Diploma $30,010 Women
College – no degree $47,070 Men
College – no degree $34,590 Women
Associate’s Degree $50,930 Men
Associate’s Degree $39,290 Women
Bachelor’s Degree $66,200 Men
Bachelor’s Degree $49,110 Women
Master’s Degree $83,030 Men
Master’s Degree $60,300 Women
Professional Degree $119,470 Men
Professional Degree $80,720 Women
Doctorate Degree $100,770 Men
Doctorate Degree $77,460 Women

Occupations That Earn the Highest Pay Packets

Employers for many white-collar jobs expect candidates to hold a 4-year degree, more advanced degrees are requirements for some positions. Salary information for the highest earning jobs is in a 2013 – 2014 report by on the basis of employees with only a bachelor’s degree. In the poll, they included all the schools in the United States and recorded the earnings incorporating full compensation, such as financial benefits, among other things. The following table displays the top 10 highest-paying jobs ordered by undergraduate major:

Occupation Median Salary (Entry-Level) Median Salary (Mid-Career)
Petroleum Engineering $103,000 $160,000
Actuarial Mathematics $58,700 $120,000
Nuclear Engineering $67,600 $117,000
Chemical Engineering $68,200 $115,000
Aerospace Engineering $62,800 $109,000
Computer Engineering $65,300 $106,000
Electrical Engineering $64,300 $106,000
Computer Science $59,800 $102,000
Physics $53,100 $101,000
Mechanical Engineering $60,900 $99,700

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