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High School vs Associate Degree earnings
»»»»»»»»The Value of a College Degree

There is considerable support for the notion that the rate of return on investment in higher education is high enough to warrant the financial burden associated with pursuing a college degree. Though the earnings differential between college and high school graduates varies over time, college graduates, on average, earn more than high school graduates.

According to the Census Bureau, over an adult's working life, high school graduates earn an average of $1.2 million; associate's degree holders earn about $1.6 million, earning them $400,000 more than someone with just a highschool diploma.

The two-year associate's degree is a solid investment, assuming the standard 40-year work life and online study. When averaging typical costs at campus-based and fully online colleges, outlay for an associate's degree runs around $26,400. Costs do vary widely, and these are loose ballpark figures. If costs and eventual income are typical, the return on an associate's degree will be as follows:

Return on Investment
Associate's Degree vs. High School Diploma
Net Present Value $111,600
Future Value $785,700

College graduates also enjoy benefits beyond increased income. A 1998 report published by the Institute for Higher Education Policy reviews the individual benefits that college graduates enjoy, including higher levels of saving, increased personal/professional mobility, improved quality of life for their offspring, better consumer decision making, and more hobbies and leisure activities (Institute for Higher Education Policy, 1998). According to a report published by the Carnegie Foundation, non-monetary individual benefits of higher education include the tendency for postsecondary students to become more open-minded, more cultured, more rational, more consistent and less authoritarian; these benefits are also passed along to succeeding generations (Rowley and Hurtado, 2002). Additionally, college attendance has been shown to "decrease prejudice, enhance knowledge of world affairs and enhance social status" while increasing economic and job security for those who earn bachelor's degrees (Ibid.)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a list of the 20 highest paid occupations with an associate’s degree.

  1. Air traffic controllers ($108,040)
  2. General and operations managers ($94,400)
  3. Construction managers ($83,860)
  4. Radiation therapists ($74,980)
  5. Nuclear medicine technologists ($68,560)
  6. Dental hygienists ($68,250)
  7. Nuclear technicians ($68,090)
  8. Registered nurses ($64,690)
  9. Diagnostic medical sonographers ($64,380)
  10. Aerospace engineering and operations technicians($ 58,080)
  11. Engineering technicians, except drafters, all other ($58,020)
  12. Electrical and electronics engineering technicians ($56,040)
  13. Radiologic technologists and technicians ($54,340)
  14. Funeral service managers, directors, morticians, and undertakers ($54,330)
  15. Respiratory therapists ($54,280)
  16. Geological and petroleum technicians ($54,020)
  17. Electrical and electronics drafters($ 53,020)
  18. Occupational therapy assistants ($51,010)
  19. Precision instrument and equipment repairers, all other ($50,910)
  20. Mechanical engineering technicians ($50,110)

Source: BLS Employment Projections program (projected job openings, education and training data), Occupational Employment Statistics program (wage data).

While it is clear that investment in a college degree, especially for those students in the lowest income brackets, is a financial burden, the long-term benefits to individuals as well as to society at large, appear to far outweigh the costs. Students should explore their financing and aid options, if the barrier of obtaining a college education is cost.

Ultimately, the value of any college degree lies in the hands of the student. The graduate's work history and staying power, choice of major and school, and personal motivation are all up to the individual. 




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