How Much is That Degree Worth?

From associate's to doctorates, each higher degree level can mean more access to top-paying jobs and less chance of unemployment

By Greg Scott Neuman
Posted 2011

The Value of a College Degree
The Value of a College Degree

Ask any guidance counselor or professional recruiter and they’ll tell you that education is important. Even putting aside the more abstract benefits of earning a college degree – such as a better understanding of other cultures and greater ability to think critically – the value is still immense. Speaking strictly in terms of wages and job security, each higher degree level you achieve gives you more opportunity to land top-paying jobs and avoid unemployment.

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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010, workers who held only a high school diploma had an average unemployment rate of 10.3% and a median weekly income of $626*. Based on this statistic, the salary comparison of a college grad to a nongrad is as follows:

Associate’s Degree

Associate’s degrees are popular because earning one typically takes just two years, and can be done at a community college where classes are relatively inexpensive. If you are looking to enter the workforce after completing your associate’s degree, you should probably attend a profession-oriented associate of science (AS) or associate of applied science (AAS) program. Associate of arts (AA) programs are generally designed for those who plan to continue their education at the bachelor’s level. Some top careers that you can enter with an associate’s degree include dental hygienist, registered nurse and radiologic technician.

Average unemployment rate in 2010: 7.0%*

Median weekly income in 2010: $767*

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Bachelor’s Degree

Bachelor’s degrees take about four years of full-time study to earn, and they are often considered the starting point of professional practice for white-collar careers. If you attend an in-state public university, you can complete a bachelor’s program for a reasonable cost. However, going to school out of state or at a private college can increase tuition significantly. Top careers you can enter with a bachelor’s degree include business administration, electrical engineering and software engineering.

Average unemployment rate in 2010: 5.4%*

Median weekly income in 2010: $1,038*

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Master’s Degree

A master’s degree generally takes two years of full-time, post-baccalaureate study to earn. Some require you to write a dissertation in addition to completing the coursework. The cost of your master’s program can be somewhat mitigated by attending an in-state public university, but graduate school is probably going to expensive regardless of which institution you ultimately choose. Still, the investment is usually worth it; a master’s degree can lead you into high-paying careers, including director- and executive-level positions with major companies.

Average unemployment rate in 2010: 4.0%*

Median weekly income in 2010: $1,272*

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Professional Degree

Sometimes called professional doctorates, these degrees are required to enter disciplines that demand significant and specialized training beyond the bachelor’s level. Medicine, dentistry and law are excellent examples. Professional degrees generally take three or four years of full-time, post-baccalaureate study to earn, and this is often followed by significant periods of internship and residency training. Medical doctor, dentist and attorney are some of the high-paying careers you can enter with a professional degree.

Average unemployment rate in 2010: 2.4%*

Median weekly income in 2010: $1,610*

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Doctoral Degree

Often simply referred to as doctorates, these degrees denote the pinnacle of academic achievement in a variety of fields. The most common doctorate is the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), but others include the Doctor of Engineering (DEng) and Doctor of Education (EdD) degrees. Doctoral degree programs can take anywhere from three to ten years of post-baccalaureate study, and also usually require that you submit and defend an original thesis. University professor and top-level, policy-making government positions are some of the high-paying careers that a doctoral degree can lead you to.

Average unemployment rate in 2010: 1.9%*

Median weekly income in 2010: $1,550*

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*U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections chart, accessed November 2011

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