Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others
Higher education is one of the most important investments that people make, and most students make this investment because they want a better chance to land a good career and higher earnings. But as they enter the labor market, some graduates earn far more than others. Prospective students need sound information about where their educational choices are likely to lead.
Based on information from five states (Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) that have shared earnings data with College Measures, this report shows that several factors influence earnings:
- Some short-term, higher education credentials are worth as much as long-term ones. Short-term (or “subbaccalaureate”) credentials include associate’s degrees and occupationally oriented certificates, and many who hold them will out-earn graduates with bachelor’s degrees.
- Where you study affects earnings—but less than usually thought. Earnings vary widely among first-year graduates in different states. Further, each state has schools whose graduates fall far below their peers in terms of earnings, and, conversely, each state hosts institutions whose graduates outperform their peers from other schools.
- What you study matters more than where you study. The labor market rewards technical and occupational skills at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s level. Graduates with bachelor’s degrees in music, photography, philosophy, and other liberal arts almost always earn the least among the major fields of study. Graduates with engineering degrees earned the most in every state. Graduates with degrees in health-related fields, especially nursing, are among the highest paid and are usually followed by graduates with business degrees.
- The S in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is oversold. Data from College Measures show that employers are paying more—often far more—for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering, and mathematics (TEM). Evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in Biology earn a wage premium—in fact, they often earn less than English majors.