Will that college degree pay off? Some actual numbers

A number of think tanks have been running the numbers on salary outcomes for students with federally backed loans (about 70% of college graduates). This Washington Post article takes a look at some of their reports. Unsurprisingly, they have picked some low-hanging fruit for their article (hands up who thought that most philosophy students would have good salaries 2 years out from undergrad!), and there are some major asterisks (for example, it doesn’t include students who went straight on to grad school), but it is the first time that a substantial amount of hard data has been available for analysis.


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I suppose if you perceive college as a pre-professional training program, it makes sense to evaluate schools and majors this way. I don’t think anything in the article is new or surprising - most people understand that students going in to the arts (music, dance, theater), and some of the humanities, aren’t likely to bring in big salaries. Personally, I wouldn’t allow my child to borrow a lot of money if this was their dream. I’d point them to college options that were more budget friendly but I wouldn’t discourage them from studying things they are passionate about.


For many people not looking at college as preparation for a future career is a luxury. Many parents don’t have the money to support their child’s “dream”. For the average student unless you are “exceptional”, in which case you are probably already noticed and can get scholarships or in some cases won’t even need a degree, college is an expensive way to practice your craft or pursue an interest. For those who can afford to pay for simply the “college experience” it’s fine. They probably have more connections in other places to pursue a future career. For most, in today’s world where most jobs that require a college degree require specific skills, the jobs or graduate degrees they might hope to get are going to require specific degrees.


The humanities are excellent preparation for many careers. The ability to read closely, research and write analytically or creatively are all important skills on the job.

Job-focused majors may bring more short term certainty but less long term flexibility. Humanities majors may have less short term certainty but more long term flexibility. Either may result in financial security- or not.

In the past the generalists who majored in the humanities did tend to have privileged backgrounds and connections- because those comprised the majority of students at top schools. And they did get jobs in banking/finance through those connections.

The increased socioeconomic diversity on campus, thanks to financial aid, may have contributed to college being seen as more vocational. Also, of course, the high cost of college and heavy debt burden make short term career certainty more appealing than exploring for a few years with an English degree.

I do think that a really important factor in college paying off is the ability to intern or volunteer or have access to jobs that help clarify direction and build connections to employers. I think internships should be available to young people not in college, but generally they are not.

Finally, if a secure job that pays well is really the goal of education, trade school and training for plumbing, electrician, contractor, RM, radiology tech and so on are a really good way to go.

The fact that many are not taking those paths but are instead taking out loans for 4 year college tells me it really isn’t all about income- it is about perceived status from a college degree.

I think the pressure for everyone to go to college is really unfortunate. I am encouraged every time I read about a program that supports other approaches to preparing for work and life.


I agree with everything you said. In the past any degree had a good chance of putting someone on the path to a good career. In part, this was because far fewer people had college degrees. Today a college degree is much more ubiquitous. While the skills gained from humanities degrees are valuable in nearly any position they often aren’t the skills necessary to get you into a good paying entry level position. If you can sell yourself and your skills it is possible to become valuable in any number of jobs. But you must be exceptional.

This brings me to the arts. My D was a Dance major. They are a passionate group of young people and many have been dancing since they were in preschool. Most of the young dancers I knew started as freshman excited and passionate about their degree. As time progressed some dropped out as it was harder than they expected and required more than just dancing. As their junior and senior year came they became fearful for their future. A handful of them were able to get positions with companies but are living several to a room and are unlikely to be able to support themselves long term, some began teaching at dance schools, again making modest wages but most are working in jobs that did not require even a HS diploma. Perhaps they will eventually find their way and be able to use the discipline and skills that dance requires. My D was like most of her classmates but she had a direction. She wanted to be a Physical Therapist. To apply doesn’t require any specific degree just that you complete the prerequisites. She loved dancing so she chose to be a BA Dance major. She was able to get a Fine Arts scholarship and take the required courses for applying to PT school. She is now a bit over half way through her PT program. Someday she thinks she might want to work with dancers. They have different needs from other PT patients that a former dancer would understand. Such as strength and range of motions goals that would be adequate for most people probably wouldn’t be for dancers. Regardless of where she ends up she loves PT.

I think for many students college comes too soon. It is a great place to discover independence and perhaps a directions but that comes at a tremendous cost for those without the resources. I think that some students would do better getting some basic work experience and looking into their interests without committing themselves to paying for the education until they have a better sense of what they wish to do with their degree and discipline.


What makes that unique compared to other majors?


I didn’t write anything about humanities being unique in that regard.


Related page, in case of paywall:

Here are the think tank studies referenced:

The data is from here:


Thanks for doing that (virtual) legwork @ucbalumnus!

Why isn’t anybody doing this for high schools?

On average, it costs around $14,000 a year to educate a high school student. That’s $56,000 per student. High school graduates without college degrees make, on average, $6,000 a year more than high school dropouts.

That means that it, on average, takes 9-9.5 years to “pay back” high school costs.

Since there is not any difference between somebody with basic literacy skills and a high school drop out, in regards to pay. That means that any schooling after 4th grade is “extra”

So 8 x $14,000 = $112,0000. That means that it takes almost 20 years to pay back the cost of “unneeded” schooling.

Shut down all the school which serve areas with high unemployment, since the high schools are, evidently, not fulfilling the main purpose of education (at least according to those Think Tanks) - Making More Money.

Let’s put kids from low income/high unemployment areas in “professional schools” to teach them the “Skills” that they need to know to work in low paying entry level jobs. They don’t need to learn all those wasteful topics like History, Biology, Physics, Literature, etc. They just need to learn how to code, or fill out forms, or press buttons.

I mean, unless a kid is from a wealthy family, why to these peasants need an education at all? When low income kids Get Too Much Education, they Get Ideas, and try to Get Above Themselves.

I’m sorry, but that is exactly the type of thought that is going into so many of these Think Tanks - The Poor Do Need Need An Education.

The fact that the main solution is “let’s shut down departments that we don’t believe are necessary”, rather than “let’s make this education affordable” tells me that the entire point of this exercise is to shut down large parts of higher education.

Here is a revolutionary idea! Let’s make sure that all jobs pay a living wage. Let’s fund higher education so that the costs are not rolled over onto the poorest people. Etc, etc, etc.

/Soap Box.


You said it well. To me there is something to education beyond preparing for a specific job - how about learning how to think critically, and write well. How about getting educated about science so that hoaxes and conspiracy theories don’t have such fertile ground to grow in. The irony of these articles about what college majors are “worth it” is that they are often written by former philosophy majors from the Ivy League.


This is all based on the data published months ago, right? So a forum discussion about a newspaper article looking at “think tank reports” on the data? Or is there new data?

If so, I suspect it won’t be much different than the long forum thread on the original data. I recommend that anyone with an interest download the data and analyze/come to conclusion based on your interests.

The data shows that certain degrees have a better ROI, that’s just a fact. We, as a country, have decided to fund public education through high school. There are also jobs available to high school graduates that do pay well, a living wage.

I think information regarding the actual career results, including job prospects and pay, of any degree should be more readily available. The reality is not all college degrees have the same end result. Some lead to in demand jobs with lots of openings. Some lead to jobs that are saturated and might not pay as much.

The average biology majors outlook is going to be quite different from an electrical engineering major. Both could have a bachelor’s degree but the outcomes are worlds apart in most cases. Students looking into a college education that aren’t from wealthier families don’t usually have the luxury of just attending college for life enrichment. Most students are trying to set themselves up for a better career, not all of course.

No, we shouldn’t ditch sending students to school through high school. As a society we have decided that is appropriate. If, as a society, we decide to fund college education for everyone then that is another story. It would actually still be in most students best interest to tailor their “free” college education towards a degree with a payback as most people actually do have to work throughout their lives so they should probably try to get a job they like but also one that will pay the bills.

Not sure what a living wage actually looks like these days. Obviously that could vary with geography too. In the end it can be a vicious circle as higher wages can lead to higher costs of goods and services which also makes it harder for those that got raises to pay their expenses. In the end the market does pay differently for different jobs. In most cases in demand jobs and jobs that require more skills or education will pay more.

I would encourage any potential college student to think.long and hard about what they want to study and where that will actually lead them.


https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/ has been around since 2015, although recent graduate post-graduation pay may have been a more recent addition (at its beginning, it showed pay levels ten years after graduation). Still, the recent graduate pay has been around for a while.

You raise another interesting point: that so many more young people are going to college, though the majority remain “non-traditional” or older… Still since bachelor’s degrees are more common, more people are trying to distinguish themselves by going to grad schools. Hence, degree inflation.

The other consequence in a context of more degrees given, is that it may matter more WHERE you got the degree, since that is also a way to distinguish yourself from the growing pack of BA’s. Maybe that is one reason for the frenzy about top schools.

I have a dancer as well. She went to a college where she could dance, but left, worked and went back to study holistic psychology and may use movement to work with autistic kids, or maybe do social work . Do these fields “pay off”? Um, no. Terrible pay. I have encouraged her to look outside of these major-related job paths and not feel limited. I am proud of her desire to help, a job motivation that doesn’t seem to be rewarded with much of a salary.


That the subject of this thread is a recurring (and recurring and recurring) discussion on this site with the same people making the same responses probably presents some type of master’s thesis opportunity. LOL


This is one of those posts that if I were to reply to it I would be in violation of the terms of conduct here. Your point is taken but there is much to hash out that can’t be here.

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Agree with your philosophy. Have two very different kids:

  1. Viewed school as pre-professional. Finance / Business. Attended a high cost private and took out the max federal student of 27.5k over the four yrs. We paid the rest. We wanted him to have skin in the game as he had other options. Had to think through cost / benefit and did quite well. Worked out as he planned and is earning a good living, totally self sufficient immediately after graduation. But that’s the finance route (for many).

  2. D is a performing artist in a BFA program. Was accepted to her dream school (NYU - Tisch) which is among the most expensive schools in the country. Actually got a scholarship (which is rare at Tisch) but was still very expensive considering the usual income outcomes for her profession (at least short term). We discussed it and she agreed that it would make way more sense for her to not have any loans, not have to work during the semester (although she is choosing to for extra spending money), not have to work over the summer so she can focus on practice and /or summerstock opportunities. In order to do that, she would need a less expensive school. Fortunately she had several choices, all with excellent BFA programs and some she chose another school in NYC. Financially this will allow her to better pursue her dreams.

It really is quite kid dependent. We could afford to pay more for D, but in reality, regardless of her career choice, we want her to be well prepared AND self sufficient (which includes finances). I love her dream, but my dream doesn’t include paying for her dream when she finishes school. That’s a real issue.


Somewhat related, I just read Google is offering its four professional certificate programs for free through every community college in the country and many technical high schools. They received some accreditation that each course is equivalent to 12 college credits (think a full semester of classes within a technical major) so finishing all four certs would equal two yrs of major coursework in computer science, business analytics related studies. For free! And they are hiring these kids and paying them good money.

This has the potential to be a major disruptor in higher education. No you’re not getting a well rounded education, but for those who know they want a technical skill and work in that arena, why not? I know several kids that would have greatly benefited from a program like this instead of attending college. I have a problem with it being free. Maybe the course is but the CC charges something. Don’t know. Free removes value. But notwithstanding, a truly great alternative.


Yes, the CC will certainly charge for these programs they supply.

It should be a boon to those that take the courses, especially initially. I could eventually see some market saturation though. It certainly is a viable path for some. I suspect in the end the top performers will be the ones that get the good job offers.

There are many career paths that students can take advantage of. Not everyone needs to go to college to be successful. And the more that go to college the more fierce the competition becomes for the jobs available.

Good on Google for offering this. Maybe they should just put up their own online format available to anyone without having to go through a third party entity. Of course that would make them more involved and be costly for them