What's a College Education Really Worth?

By Arkansas NEXT Staff on Monday, September 19, 2011

After high school (or as soon as your parents cut you off), you’ll have to start paying for everything, from college and housing to car payments, gas, clothing and more. The amount of education you pursue and degree you obtain will determine everything from the type of house you live in and car you drive to where you vacation and what you wear. The good news is that how you end up is in your hands. Check out the following lifestyles by degree level to see which match your expectations for life after high school.


High School Diploma/GED

The lifestyle: Unless you’re the lucky exception, you’re going to find out fast that at least some college is better than none. If you don’t want to still live with your parents after graduation, your best bet for independent living is to split rent with a responsible friend. Saving for a deposit on a house will be hard, as most of your money will go toward monthly expenses. Also, don’t expect to have extra spending money for luxury items and time for leisure travel. Most of the jobs you’ll qualify for require nontraditional hours, meaning less time hanging out with friends and more time working. And you’ll need every cent of your wages, because you’ll probably have to pay for your own medical insurance!

Jobs you can get:

  • Cashier
  • Receptionist 
  • Telemarketer
  • Retail salesperson    
  • Food preparation worker 
  • Motion picture projectionist    
  • Building or grounds cleaner, or maintenance worker    
  • Lifeguard or other recreational protective service worker

Average salary: $20,405


Some College/Professional Training

(Associate & Technical Degrees & Certificates of Proficiency)

The lifestyle: Whether money was tight or your career calling didn’t require a bachelor’s degree, you made the right call to take your education to another level after high school. Despite having less education than your four-year college counterparts, you’ll be specially trained in specific fields of study, which will give you an edge for some jobs. Financially, you racked up less student debt, so you should be able to start earning, spending and saving right away. Not pursuing a four-year degree, however, will prove to have kept some salaries and luxuries out of reach in the long run.

Jobs you can get:

  • Paralegal    
  • Hair stylist    
  • Nursing aide    
  • Office clerk    
  • Veterinary technician    
  • Computer support specialist 
  • Automotive service technician    
  • Police, fire and ambulance dispatcher

Average salary: $28,921


Bachelor’s Degree

The lifestyle: Congratulations grad! You’ve made the decision to invest your time and money in a bachelor’s degree that will open countless career doors. No matter what your major, or what job you’re applying for, having this on degree on your resume puts you steps ahead of fellow applicants with professional certificates or associate degrees. After college and some internship experience, you’ll be able to get a solid job – most likely one with great medical coverage, a 401(k) plan and other benefits. These little extras often come at no (or minimal) cost to you, making it easier to save money for important purchases you’ll make in the future, like a starter home, new car, leisure travel and even your future kids’ college tuition.

Jobs you can get:
Depends on your major, but a lot of doors will open for you.

  • Reporter    
  • Tax preparer    
  • Social worker    
  • Graphic designer
  • Advertising sales agent
  • Elementary school teacher     
  • Appraiser or assessor of real estate 
  • Environmental engineering technician

Average salary: $35,591


Graduate School

(Master’s, Doctoral & Professional Degrees)

The lifestyle: Often the money spent obtaining these expensive degrees is recouped within about five years of work, but not always. So, make sure you answer this question before pursuing your master’s: Will you eventually earn enough to pay back those hefty grad school loans? If the answer is yes, go for it. After graduating (for the second time), you’ll face less competition in the job market and make a substantial salary. Therefore, many of life’s luxuries – good medical coverage, extra vacation time, second homes, designer clothes, sports cars, boats, and a big retirement fund– may become affordable.

Jobs you can get:
Pretty much anything! These degrees can snag you upper-level positions at companies in most fields.

  • Scientist
  • Research analyst     
  • Software engineer 
  • Financial advisor
  • Lawyer 
  • Veterinarian    
  • Optometrist     
  • Librarian 

Average salary: $74,755