Why A College Degree Might Not Pay Off for Everyone

While the average salary of a college educated worker greatly surpasses that of high school educated worker, college graduates who fall in the lower salary ranges are not fairing quite as well. People are rarely “average”, and there is a wide disparity in the amount the college graduates get paid.

A study by the New York Federal Reserve shed more light on this situation. According to their findings, the income of the 25th percentile of college graduates is no better than the median income of high school graduates.

Annual Wage by Education, 1970-2013
Annual Wage by Education, 1970-2013

Graduates in the 25th percentile could be in even more trouble if they have a significant debt burden, which is likely. According to the Project on Student Debt, 7 in 10 graduates have debt, with the average amount being $29,400 per borrower.

The data seems to suggest that certain people really are better off not going to college, but there are several important caveats. First, we don't know what would have become of these workers had they never graduated from college. It's possible their college degree has saved them from unemployment or an even lower-paying job.

Second, personal decisions have a large role to play in salaries. Perhaps these people are purposefully choosing low-wage occupations to follow their passions. After all, careers like early childhood education and social work are not known to pay well, yet most people are unable to work in those positions without a college degree.

There is also reason to believe that many college graduates in the 25th percentile will not stay there for their whole career. Students who majored in engineering and tech are typically able to land high-paying jobs right out of college, while students who study traditional liberal arts majors often suffer from underemployment for several years before earning skills and experience that are able to land them better jobs. You can read more about this issue in a previous blog post.

So, does college pay off? Yes, for the majority of people, but results can depend highly on where you choose to study, what major you choose, and how much debt you take on. Someone who is able to graduate in four years with an engineering degree and less than $30,000 of debt is likely to fair much better financially than someone who took 6 years to graduate with a degree in parks and recreation, and amassed $40,000 worth of debt while doing so.

What do you think of this data? Is it dangerous to point students away from a college education, or is legitimate to warn them about the possibility of a low-paying career even with a college degree?

Ready to find a college degree that will pay you back?