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Advanced Degrees Are No Guarantee, But Most of the Highest Earners Have One


Much has been written — here, and elsewhere — about the fact that graduate degrees are no guarantee of success. However, PayScale’s College Salary Report shows that the highest earners tend to have advanced degrees. Furthermore, the wage earners who see the largest increase in their salaries over the course of their careers are generally those who continue their education beyond a two- or four-year degree.


(Photo Credit: velkr0/Flickr)

Not all degrees are created equal, of course. For example, someone with an associate degree in early childhood education earns a median starting pay of $23,000; 20 years later, associate degree holders can expect their salary to be 40 percent higher at $32,300 annually. A master’s degree holder in the same concentration earns a starting median pay of $36,700; at the 20-year mark, median pay has increased 35 percent to $49,400. Getting an advanced degree makes a salary difference of a little over $17,000 annually, but that’s still less than $50,000 a year for six or more years of post-high school education — at least some of which is likely supported with loans.

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On the other hand, a person with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering can expect a 20-year median pay of $194,000, no advanced degree required. That’s higher than an MBA in strategy with 20 years’ experience ($183,000) or a master’s in nurse anesthesia ($168,000, after 20 years).

Bottom line: choosing a major and deciding whether to pursue an advanced degree are a matter of matching aptitude with educational opportunity (and requirements for the career of your dreams). If you do plan to continue your education beyond an associate or bachelor’s degree, the best approach is to have a strategy that encompasses financial planning and occupational outlook, as well as passion for the subject.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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