By: Clare Kaufman
A dollar saved is a dollar earned. But a dollar invested in a college degree offers an even greater return: a lifetime of dollars earned. The right training program offers wealth, job security and a chance to develop professionally. The following degrees offer the highest return on your investment — both in terms of earning power and career happiness.
College degree investments by the numbers
Each year in the classroom expands your earning power and career opportunities. The U.S. Census has the numbers to prove it. College degrees offer the following average return on investment (ROI) across all disciplines:
- Associate degree. In as little as eighteen months to two years, you could boost your income by 30 percent. Associate degree programs are widely available online to accommodate mid-career adults. They offer some general education, but typically focus on the applied vocational training you need to advance your career.
- Bachelor’s degree. A total of four years in the real or virtual classroom will earn you a bachelor’s degree. This undergraduate degree offers the biggest leap in earnings, with college graduates earning an additional $23,300 per year, or $2.1 million over a lifetime, according to Census estimates.
- Master’s degree. In many fields, the best opportunities and highest earnings go to people with a master’s degree. A year or two of advanced graduate training can set you apart from the competition on the job market and help you lock in a higher salary. Advanced degree holders earned 2.6 times as much as a high school graduate, according to the U.S. Census’ last comprehensive study of educational attainment in 2002.
- Professional degree. A professional degree offers the most dramatic leap in earning power. The Census report estimates a lifetime income of $4.4 million, nearly four times the total earnings of a high school graduate.
These are the sort of returns that would make a financial analyst jump for joy. Choose a high-demand career path, and you’ll set yourself up for even more impressive gains.
Five paths to career training ROI
The following degree programs offer the most bang for your educational buck:
M.B.A. degrees have a reputation for driving salaries and careers straight into the upper echelons. According to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which charts M.B.A. earnings each year, “2008 business school graduates reported a median salary increase of 39 percent over their pre-graduate degree salaries.” In addition, 54 percent of M.B.A. alumni report receiving a promotion within five years of graduating.
Make the most of your M.B.A. ROI by keeping costs as low as possible. Online degrees make it easy to earn while you learn. The GMAC survey found that 75 percent of M.B.A. students work more than 35 hours a week. Also, 70 percent receive financial aid to help with the tuition bills.
A two-year nursing degree offers a fast track into one of the fastest growing careers in the nation. The nursing profession is adding an estimated 587,000 jobs between 2006 and 2016, more than any other occupation. This historic demand is driving salaries up. In 2008, nurses earned $65,130 across the nation. California nurses have seen their average salary rise to $83,040.
Job security and robust salaries more than offset the costs of a nursing school education. With coursework available online and at local colleges, the associate degree in nursing combines medical education with hands-on training at a local clinic.
According to the Department of Labor, engineering bachelor’s degree holders command the highest starting salaries of any college graduate. You can expect an entry-level salary of at least $50,000. Choose the right engineering specialty, and you could see that amount double in five to 10 years. Nuclear and petroleum engineers both boast six-figure median salaries, with computer hardware engineers not far behind.
In addition to the salary, engineering graduates in high-demand specialties can expect job security. Environmental and biomedical engineers lead the pack with over 20 percent growth predicted through 2016.
You could spend seven years in college and professional school to become a lawyer — or just two years to become a paralegal. Paralegals are assuming many of the responsibilities previously reserved for attorneys — preparing documents, performing legal research, writing reports and more. Essentially, they serve as the attorney’s right hand.
With a two-year paralegal studies degree, you can earn a salary in the neighborhood of $48,740, the 2008 national average. With experience, paralegals can earn upwards of $70,000. In addition to the financial ROI, a paralegal studies degree could afford job security. The Department of Labor predicts 22 percent growth in paralegal jobs through 2016, much faster than all other occupations.
Four years studying financial management can do wonders for your own finances. Accounting has become a high-growth career, thanks to a new generation of federal regulations and reporting requirements. A bachelor’s degree in business or accounting can help you build the analytical and quantitative skills to qualify for an accounting degree.
To keep costs low and ROI high, consider starting with an associate degree in accounting and working toward your bachelor’s degree online. You can gain employment as a junior accountant, working alongside an established professional until you complete your college degree. Accountants earned an average salary of $65,840 in 2008.
A college degree may be the most important investment you ever make. Knowledge and applied skills increase your value in the economy, enabling employers to pay you more throughout your working life. Stocks may tumble, home prices may fall, but you can count on your career training to pay dividends throughout your working life.