Higher education can ramp up your earning power, and it can help you attain job security. But it requires a significant investment of time and money. If you are shooting for a bachelor’s degree, the average cost at a public college or university in 2010 was $7,605 per year, including tuition and fees, according to the College Board. For a private school, it was $27,293 a year. And upon graduation, a hefty salary -- or even a job -- is not guaranteed, so choose your school and major carefully.
Bachelor’s-degree holders ages 25 and older who were working full time earned an average of $1,025 per week in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That amounts to $53,300 per year. In 2009, the latest year for which data was available, about 30 percent of adults age 25 or older held a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
People with bachelor's degrees fall roughly in the middle of the earnings continuum, according to the BLS. The 2009 average income for individuals age 25 and up with less than a high school diploma was $54 per week. For those with professional or doctorate degrees, the average is about $1,530 a week. Unemployment rates follow the same trend. The rate was 14.6 percent for those without a high school diploma, 5.2 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree and 2.5 percent for those with a doctorate degree.
Not all bachelor’s degrees are created equal. In a 2010 survey, PayScale Inc., which runs a website providing market research on compensation, reported that petroleum engineering is the highest-paying field for those with undergraduate degrees. The median starting salary is $93,000 a year, and the median mid-career salary is $157,000. You will not get nearly the same payoff with, say, a degree in social work. The median starting salary for that major is $31,000, and the mid-career median is $44,900.
Men at all levels of education earn significantly more than similarly educated women, according to the Indiana Business Research Center. Women with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn, on average, $1.4 million over the course of their lives, compared with $2.1 million for men with the same level of education.