Median salary with and without a college degree

While the cost of school is growing, so is the income gap between college graduates and non-graduates.

The median weekly salary for a worker with at least a bachelor degree hit $1,467 by the end of 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up $309 compared to a decade earlier.

Compare that to workers with just a high school diploma, who are earning a median salary of $831 per week. They only saw a bump of $180 — which is 72% less than the raise college grads received.

But comparing degree holders to non-degree holders doesn’t tell the whole story. For the complete picture, we need to break it down by the type of degree.

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Median salary for associate degree holders

An associate degree generally takes two years of full-time study, usually at a community college.

Some associate degrees are designed to transfer to a four-year university, while others are more like technical training programs — preparing students to jump straight into the workforce. For example, some community colleges offer associate programs that train you to become a flight attendant.

The median salary for associate degree holders is $938 per week, and unemployment sits at 7.1%.

But like other kinds of degrees, earnings vary significantly based on the career you choose. Some of the highest-paying jobs for workers with an associate degree include air traffic controllers, radiation therapists, nuclear technicians and dental hygienists.

Median salary for bachelor’s degree holders

A bachelor’s degree typically requires four years of full-time study. To save money on tuition, many students split these four years between a community college — where they earn an associate degree — and a four-year institution.

The median weekly salary for workers with a bachelor's degree is $1,305 per week, and the unemployment rate is 5.5%.

The extra two years of undergraduate study lead to a significant bump in lifetime earnings compared to associate degree holders — especially if you pursue high-paying fields like engineering or computer programming.

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Median salary for master’s degree holders

A master’s degree is the first tier of graduate-level study. To qualify, you typically need to hold a bachelor’s degree. Programs vary in length, but most last two years.

The median salary for a worker with a master’s degree is $1,545 per week — 18% higher than a worker with a bachelor’s degree. The unemployment rate sits at just 4.1%.

While master’s-level careers like nurse anesthetists, physician assistants and economists earn well over $100,000 per year, you’re not guaranteed a six-figure salary. For example, the median annual wage for an archaeologist is $66,130, and career counselors earn just $58,120.

Median salary for doctoral degree holders

A doctorate is typically the highest degree one can earn in an academic discipline. They include both PhDs, which prepare students for research careers, and professional or clinical doctorates, which prepare students to be leaders in a particular industry.

Doctoral degrees have no set timeline; you might finish one in four years or take 10. They typically require extensive, original research projects ending in a dissertation: a lengthy paper you may have to stand and defend.

You’d think all this extra effort would warrant a massive pay bump. While that can happen, it’s not always the case. The median weekly salary is $1,885, and the unemployment rate is 2.5% — the lowest of all education levels.

Many degree holders work in academic settings as researchers or professors, while others work in business, health care, government or various technical industries.

Median salary for professional degree holders

Compared to a doctoral degree, professional degrees are more grounded and purposeful.

Instead of focusing on research and theory, students will build practical skills in a field like medicine, pharmacy and law, preparing them to pass the tests necessary for certification.

Workers with a professional degree earn a median salary of $1,893 per week, the highest of any education level. They also account for all of the top 10 highest-paying jobs in the nation, including psychiatrists, surgeons and orthodontists.

That said, the unemployment rate for professional degree holders is 3.1%, slightly higher than doctoral degrees.

Median salary for no college degree

Without a college degree, it’s hard to break through into higher income brackets. It’s also harder to find and keep a job.

The extent of these difficulties depends on your highest level of education.

  • Some college, no degree: $877 median weekly salary, 8.3% unemployment rate.
  • High school diploma, no college: $781 median weekly salary; 9% unemployment rate.
  • Less than a high school diploma: $619 median weekly salary; 11.7% unemployment rate.

That said, it’s not impossible to be successful without a degree. Ever hear of Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs, or President Harry Truman?

All college dropouts.

Plenty of decent-paying careers don’t require a degree. For example, executive assistants earn an average salary of $65,230, and many positions only require a high school diploma.

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About the Author

Mitchell Glass

Mitchell Glass

Freelance Contributor

Mitchell is a freelance contributor to MoneyWise.com.

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