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Do Higher Degrees Always Pay Off? It Depends

Mon Feb 27 2012
Stephanie Ewert
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Many statistics suggest that education is a key way to improve one’s economic position in life.  Consequently, parents often stress the importance of education to their kids in hopes of ensuring economic success for them down the road. But do higher degrees always pay off?

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When looking only at education level, the answer appears to be yes. In 2009, the average monthly earnings for an adult with a professional degree were $11,927, while the average monthly earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients were $5,455 and for vocational certificate holders were $3,538.

However, when considering the field of degree in addition to education level, the answer is less straightforward.  In some cases, technical fields can pay off more than higher degrees in nontechnical fields.

In 2009, adults with associate’s degrees in computer science and engineering, along with vocational certificate holders in engineering, earned more on average than those with bachelor’s degrees in education.

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For example, adults with associate’s degrees in engineering earned $4,813 per month, on average, while bachelor’s degree holders in education earned $3,806 per month. People with professional and doctorate degrees in medicine, the natural sciences and law earned the most out of all education level and field of study combinations.

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Earnings vary across fields of degree for several reasons, including that some fields teach highly valued skills or lead into more lucrative occupations.

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For more details on the relationship between educational attainment, fields of study, and eventual occupation and earnings, see our report What It’s Worth: Field of Training and Economic Status in 2009.

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