The Relationship Between Education and Income

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Each year, tens of thousands of new college students begin their journey towards higher education in the hopes of landing equally high paying jobs in the future. It has long been understood that an education can lead to long-term financial success, and higher overall earnings over the life of a career. Generally speaking, the more specialized the education, the higher the earnings go. So too, the type of careers that are in most demand often dictate earnings potential, regardless of the degree level.

A Bachelor's Degree Is Enough

Professionals often opt for stopping at bachelor's degrees while still going after careers that typically pay more, such as those in high demand STEM industries. A Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce report revealed, "Those with bachelor's degrees earn vastly more than counterparts with some college ($1.55 million in lifetime earnings) or a high school diploma ($1.30 million lifetime)." This fact indicates simply earning a four-year degree can be the key to long-term financial success. For career paths where demand for skilled workers is fierce, higher paying jobs may be available for those who learn specific skillsets as they relate to the job requirements. For example, the information technology field is clamoring for software developers; therefore, those who study and earn certificates in one or more software languages can expect to be offered highly compensated roles with leading companies.

Negatives to Higher Education

There is a negative side to earning a degree too. College students have traditionally faced the financial burden of attending school due to increasing tuition rates and student loan debt. According to the US Department of Education and the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), for the 2012-2013 academic year (the most recent data available as of 2016), the average annual undergraduate tuition, room, and board for a public institution was $15,022 in current dollars. For private colleges and universities, it totaled $39,173 per year. This represents a 39 percent increase in just the last ten years, even after inflationary adjustments were made.

Earnings Based on Specialization

In certain industries, the amount of specialized education is directly proportionate to the amount of earnings that a professional can make. For example, in the health care sector, a general practitioner can expect to earn as much as $188,223 per year, while a specialist can earn around $360,000 per year, twice as much (based on 2016 data from In the engineering field, an entry level engineer can expect to earn around $62,741 per year, while an engineer who goes on to earn additional certification can earn $95,136 per year or more. As a rule, the more specialized the training, and the more in demand a skill set is, the higher the potential earnings will be.

Occupation to Earnings Comparison

Here are some other examples, according to the US Department of Labor, of industry occupations in which a specialization and advanced education can increase earninings potential by as much as 80 percent or more:

Occupation Annual Earnings - Bachelor's Degree Annual Earnings - Master's Degree
Financial Securities Sales $90,000 $170,000
School Administrators $52,000 $75,000
Physician Assistants $66,000 $95,000
Environmental Scientists $62,000 $80,000
Airline Pilots $100,000 $120,000

Alternatives to College Degrees

Fortunately, with the cost of a college education so steep these days, there are other methods of seeking additional training that can lead to better future earnings. Many workplaces offer paid, on-the-job training and apprenticeships that can provide focused training and advanced earnings. Employees can also take it upon themselves to participate in certification programs for their chosen industry. This can often lead to better starting salaries for new jobs and the ability to climb the corporate ladder faster. The costs are more manageable in these cases and sometimes free to the employees themselves. Keep in mind, however, that when employers sponsor and pay for these types of trainings, they may expect employees to stay on the job for at least a year or two so they can earn a return on investment.

Maximize Earning Potential

When planning a career path, it is important to weigh all the factors in determining the best type of education for you. Careful evaluation and planning can help you maximize your earnings potential.

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The Relationship Between Education and Income