Want a higher salary? A college degree is still a best bet

May 09, 2023 · 3 min read · By ASU Online
The national conversation about the value of college is worth having. But if you’re looking to boost your income, keep your eye on the big picture.

A sentiment that’s been floated about the job market in recent years is that a college education just isn’t worth it anymore. Growing awareness around student debt has led to an acknowledgment that a college degree isn’t the only route to success, opening up doors for people for whom a traditional education setting was unattainable.

Still, that doesn’t change a core fact about college education: A four-year degree is the clearest route to a higher salary.

“The biggest hiring challenge is finding candidates with a four-year degree who have years of experience,” said one of the more than 2,000 hiring managers, recruiters and team members who responded to ASU Online’s 2022 study, The Value of Higher Education Today, conducted in partnership with Walr. “Most people who apply don’t have the needed degree,” said another.


Education’s ROI can begin the moment you graduate

Survey respondents reported that candidates with a degree could get a salary offer that’s between 5% and 10% more than what was originally allocated for the role. In fact, 42% of people with four-year degrees earned more than the designated salary for their role — while 52% of those whose education ended at high school actually earned less than the designated salary.

That pay bump begins right out of the gate. Going by the average out-of-college starting salary of $55,000, that degree gives you at least $5,500 over the salary you’d get without that piece of paper.

That is, if you’d even get your foot in the door without a degree on your resume. When asked about important factors in deciding who to interview for a job, 83% of survey respondents said that education level was important — above years of experience, relevance of most recent job and prior jobs outside of the industry.


College degrees pay off over a lifetime, for everyone

A 5% to 10% pay bump is nice, but education is a long-term investment, with long-term returns. People with four-year degrees can expect to accumulate substantially more wealth over their careers, despite earning disparities among graduates. But even after accounting for key sociodemographic variables that affect earnings, college grads come out ahead.

According to 2021 earnings data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median weekly earning of bachelor’s degree holders was $525 more than those with only a high school diploma. That’s an annual difference of more than $27,000.

The gender pay gap puts women at a financial disadvantage regardless of education levels. While activists work toward closing the gap for women as a whole, individual women may benefit even more than men by having a four-year degree, suggests data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

No matter your identity, a four-year degree can translate not just to a higher salary, but to wealth. The idea of accumulating wealth can seem like a distant dream when nearly two-thirds of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. But while income (how much money you earn) is distinct from wealth (how many assets, including financial assets, you own), you can’t build wealth if you don’t have the financial resources to contribute to it. In fact, nearly every guide to wealth-building includes the crucial step of finding ways to boost your income.

The fact that a college degree boosts your income and potential for building wealth? That’s just one part of the value you’ll get from your four-year investment. College is a holistic investment. It can help you create networks of personal and professional connections, open you to new pockets of the world at large and help you find your place in the world. And that may be its biggest value of all.

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