How much is that bachelor's worth?

How Much Is That Bachelor’s Degree Really Worth? compared to a high school diploma, asks Mark Schneider of AEI.  Estimates run from $1.2 million over a lifetime to $279,893 (Charles Miller, Commission on the Future of Higher Education) to $121,539 (National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges).

Schneider’s first analysis shows a very high return with graduates of very selective colleges and universities earning much more than those who go to unselective schools. But returns to schooling drop when “opportunity costs” — tuition and years out of the workforce — are factored in.  On average, he calculates, a bachelor’s is worth less than $300,000 over a working life. Once again, graduates from the most selective schools earn a lot more.

In “The Best Colleges for Making Money,”  SmartMoney magazine looked at early and midcareer salaries for “graduates from fifty of the most expensive four-year colleges.”  Factoring in tuition and fees, public colleges deliver more bucks for the degree.

For example, the University of Georgia delivers a “payback” nearly three times that of Harvard, and both the Universities of Delaware and Rhode Island outperform every Ivy League institution in the ranking.

Of course, Schneider writes, students’ earnings depend on their choice of major. “Ten years after graduation, those who were in the field of education earned slightly more than $30,000, while respondents who were in business or engineering earned twice as much.”

Degreees for selective institutions will hold their value, but unselective colleges’ degrees may not.

The Wall Street Journal has advice for college grads interviewing for unpaid internships in the hopes of qualifying for a paying job.

About Joanne


  1. I hate to say it, but it really depends on what kind of social connections an individual had prior to going to college. My DH and I have quite different backgrounds but attended the same elite university. He grew up in a moderate-income neighborhood populated by skilled tradesmen and low-level civil servants. Many of his high school classmates did not attend college. By attending an elite university, he was able to gain entry to a very different social network.

    In contrast, I grew up in an affluent neighborhood populated by highly educated white collar professionals. I don’t think I benefited nearly as much as my DH from the social network of my alma mater because the one it offered was fairly similar to the one I already had.

  2. linda seebach says:

    Several years ago, Robert Zemsky gave a presentation (at a Knight Conference, I think) that segmented higher education by primary audience. Graduates of highly selective institutions did have much higher incomes, on average, but the payoff went largely to graduates who went on to professional schools such as law and medicine. Those who didn’t — not that anyone knows for sure when they’re high school seniors choosing a college — would have been financially better off elsewhere. Whether going to a selective school improves your chances of getting into a professional degree program would be another variable, of course.

    (Sorry, I can’t find a specific online link — but he’s at UPenn,

  3. Dick Eagleson says:

    If the academic department granting your degree has a name ending in “Studies,” then, congratulations; You’ve just shelled out 50 to 100 grand for the privilege of becoming overcredentialed for minimum wage work and underqualified for anything else.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    Has the Schneider article been pulled from the AEI website? Joanne’s link doesn’t work, and other links I’ve found online also don’t work.

    Some of these studies don’t allow for the fact that Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford graduates are the kind of students who can get admitted to Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford. That is, students at elite colleges end up earning more than students who didn’t go to college just because they’re bright ambitious go-getters, not because their college turned them into people who were more worthy of high salaries.