When I wrote about this question over a decade ago, it was in response to one jobseeker in an article for the Wall Street Journal who had this to say: “A degree isn’t any big guarantee of employment, it’s a basic requirement, a step you have to take to even be considered for many professional jobs.”
Fast forward to 2019 and all college graduates, particularly in the context of HBCU and Black College debt, are asking themselves often – What’s your college degree worth?
It’s a valid question and the answer is still pretty clear. Generally speaking, the more you learn, the more you earn!
But that’s the simple answer. It makes sense to explore some of the variables that will impact each person’s situation.
College Major Matters
This is not meant to say that people should only focus on earning degrees in certain college majors identified as money makers. We all know that there are extremely successful professionals who pursued various majors in college. Sometimes, there might actually be very little relationship between the major and the career, but the graduates still achieved success. Washington Post research actually shows that only 27% of people have a job related to their college major.
Given all that, research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, showed that the difference in earnings between one major and another can be more than 300 % depending on the college major selected. For example, below are the projected starting salaries for graduates with bachelors degrees in 2019. (Source is National Association of Colleges and Employers). The averages here don’t reflect a 300% difference between the smallest and the largest below, but factors like geography, specific job, industry etc. will all impact an individual’s starting salary after college.
- Engineering – $69,188
- Computer Science – $67,539
- Math and Sciences – $62,177
- Business – $56,657
- Social Sciences – $57,310
- Humanities – $56,651
- Agriculture and Natural Resources – $55,750
- Communications – $52,056
Time Beyond Graduation Matters
Having worked with thousands of new college graduates over the years, I am always amazed at how many graduates still believe that the college degree is the end of a dream. Granted, it is a big deal, but graduates should remember that although the bachelors degree marks a significant accomplishment, it is really a new beginning. Now that they are armed with a college degree, time and experience will become a factor in future earnings. This College Board graphic from the 2016 Education Pays Report shows the difference in earnings over time, based on level of education achieved.
The Social Security Administration also tracks lifetime earnings and can definitely answer the question – What’s your college degree worth? The answer can be found in lifetime earnings data. For men and women with Bachelor degrees, average lifetime earning is about $750,000 dollars more than a high school graduate. For men and women with graduate degrees, the lifetime earning is almost $1.3 million more than a high school graduate.
All other things being equal – industry changes, skills, geography, state of the economy, individual choice – college graduates will always have an easier time finding employment. The unemployment rate among the college educated is always lower than that of workers with less educational attainment.
The 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data below demonstrates the inverse relationship between educational attainment and unemployment. As educational attainment goes higher, the unemployment rate is lower.
- Doctoral degree – 1.6%
- Professional degree – 1.5%
- Master’s degree – 2.1%
- Bachelor’s degree – 2.2%
- Associate degree – 2.8%
- Some college, no degree – 3.7%
- High school diploma, no college – 4.1%
- Less than high school diploma – 5.6%
Job Satisfaction Matters
We are not going to defend the premise that the higher the educational attainment, the higher the wages and therefore the higher the job satisfaction. Why? Because we all probably know people right now who make a lot of money but still hate their jobs.
However, looking at the research from the Conference Board (via The Non Profit Times) on employee satisfaction, the data does show a relationship between earnings and job satisfaction.
For example, the report posited that workers earning $125,000 or more had a job satisfaction rating of 62% while those workers making $15,000 or less showed a job satisfaction rate of 42%.
Your Goals Matter
Although lots of data exists to help graduates answer the question about the worth of college degrees, the realized value will still boil down to what the graduate is going to use the degree to accomplish. College graduates very quickly learn to appreciate how insecure any job can be and how little a college degree by itself, is really worth. With significant competition for entry-level positions employers are often going to look for more than the degree and ask “Beyond your college degree, what else have you accomplished”?
Let me be clear – academics are extremely important. However, new college graduates should know that what employers want go well beyond the college degree. Employers are looking for job seekers who leave a positive impact as they move grow professionally by learning and doing more. Employers also value a strong work ethic, clarity of vision and confidence about professional intent from college graduates.
Even for graduates who choose not to be employed, but to start their own businesses, these skills and behaviors matter in ultimately determining the value of a college degree.
So the next time someone asks you – “What’s your college degree worth?” think carefully about all the variables that could impact how you choose your use your education to build your own professional life. The bottom line answer is – It depends. It depends on you.
Additional resources as you ponder the worth of a college degree:
- PayScale and Salary – Salary data and job descriptions for thousands of job roles.
- Glassdoor – Data on worker sentiment, wages and insider details on what it’s like to work for specific companies.
- Department of Labor O*Net – detailed descriptions about work, wages, education and employment trends.