What’s the return on investment (ROI) of a college education? This is continuously under debate. At the heart of the issue is how much students will earn after graduation, as compared to how much they spent to complete the degree. How can you set realistic expectations for your future income?
There are many resources available to help you determine what type of wage or salary you can expect. It’s not all black and white, however. There are many variables to consider in terms of costs and benefits, and your calculation of ROI should be unique to you.
Review Salary Guides
Thankfully, a lot of groups are collecting salary data and providing open access to helpful reports. This list of websites, ranging from government agencies to private companies, is a good place to begin your research:
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Employment Statistics program provides salary and hourly wage information for more than 800 job titles. Search the database by keyword to reach profiles that include earnings estimates, top hiring industries and employment details by geographic location.
- Department of Education: The new College Scorecard site is designed to help prospective students compare schools. It includes median salaries of graduates who received federal financial aid, ten years after beginning their programs. This is a more general look at what’s possible across majors and career fields.
- National Association of Colleges and Employers: The NACE 2015 Salary Survey lists average salaries for college graduates by major. This professional association connects college career services professionals with employers and recruiters, creating resources useful to students as well.
- PayScale.com: The 2015-2016 College Salary Report ranks schools, majors and careers according to salary trends. You can also find out more about typical salary ranges for job titles in your location when you complete a profile through the Salary Survey questionnaire.
- Salary.com: This site’s U.S. Salary Wizard generates a report based on job title and location, which includes medial annual salary, typical employment benefits and a list of similar jobs. Other resources include a job comparison checklist, cost-of-living wizard and a database of searchable job openings.
Each of these resources relies on different data sources and collection methods, so it is a good idea to review more than one to get a better idea about the range of income projections. For example, when I searched for “Information Security Analyst” in these databases (except the College Scorecard) the estimated salaries ranged from $65,849 to $83,531.
This is not an exhaustive list of resources. Most career fields and industries offer more specific salary analyses, often with more detailed job titles. Check with the professional organizations in your field of interest, as well as with niche career sites (e.g., Dice.com for information technology, Robert Half for creative and marketing professionals) for more information and extend your research even further.
Personalize Your Approach
In addition to job title or general career field, there are other variables affecting what your income will be. Be prepared to enter some of the following items in more advanced salary calculators, and to include them on your own when conducting a job search or salary negotiation:
- Work experience: Do you already have experience working in a related field? The more relevant your background and the more time you’ve spent on the job can mean a higher starting salary.
- Education level: In many industries employers are willing to pay higher salaries to applicants with an advanced degree. Some of the tools listed above include school and program information, which may affect salary and hiring in some way.
- Specialized training and certification: Does your field of interest value special skills training or formal certification (e.g., PMP for project managers)? If so, pursuing these opportunities beyond the degree could lead to higher income. Use CareerOneStop’s certification finder to explore the options in your field.
- Work location: Salaries and cost of living estimates vary by town, state and region. Most of the salary guides I listed above require you to enter location when searching for salary information. If you are interested in or willing to relocate be sure to research the data for those locations as well.
- Career field and industry: Some fields are more lucrative than others. Engineering majors, for example, can expect to earn more than social work majors overall. And there are variances across employment industries – engineering graduates who work in education should expect to earn less than those working in manufacturing.
Estimate Your ROI
What is your return on investment? The bottom line of cost vs. gain is unique to your situation. And as it is with salary estimates, there are a lot of variables to consider.
Financial aid counselors at your institution should be able to list both charges you are paying and awards you are receiving, and provide some sort of documentation – ask them for this. Start your calculation of college costs with the following:
- Tuition, fees and textbooks: What are you paying to attend your classes? Tuition may be charged by the class, credit or semester, and there are usually multiple fees involved throughout a program (e.g., labs, technology, graduation). If you haven’t already done so, estimate a total cost for completing your degree program.
- Loan repayment: If you are currently receiving student loans, which approximately 70% of college students are, get to know the terms and requirements before you graduate. How much will you be responsible for repaying per month and for how many months? The U.S. Department of Education provides an online repayment estimator for students with federal loans. Bankrate.com offers a basic loan calculator for other types of student loans.
- Other related expenses: Have you faced other costs associated with attending school? Maybe you had to pay for extra childcare hours, incurred transportation and parking expenses or had to pay fees at a proctoring center for exams, for example. While these things factor in to your overall college-related expenses, they are likely temporary and should end after you graduate.
It’s more difficult to put a dollar amount on things like the time and effort required to complete a college degree, but these are additional costs to consider as you prepare for your next job after graduation.
Everyone has living expenses (i.e., housing, food, transportation). Knowing what you spend each month is a good idea, even if you aren’t a college student. Calculators from FinAid.org and About.com help you not only estimate spending, but also budget for the future. Figuring out whether or not your investment in a college education will pay off after graduation is a multi-step process:
- Compare your monthly expenses and expected income: Will you be able to earn enough to both repay loans and cover living expenses? This is perhaps the most important bottom line for students to consider.
- Look at long-term earnings potential: While your entry-level salary estimates may not be what you were hoping for, look at income trends over time. What are people with five or ten years of experience in your field earning? As you gain practical experience and advance in your career using the skills, knowledge and networks built while you were a student, your salary will increase.
- Consider employment compensation and benefits: Is earning a degree the key to entry or continued employment in your industry? Bonuses, insurance, retirement accounts, paid vacation and other non-salary components of employment are part of the overall equation and vary by employer.
Each student should take the time to consider his or her unique situation and calculate estimates accordingly. It’s also essential to understand that estimates for expenses and earnings, are estimates only and not guarantees. But they provide a working framework to help you make the best decisions you can about your future. Fluctuations in the economy and trends in the industry in which you want to be hired can, and do, change the outlook. Conduct this review periodically as you work through your program to keep your estimates current.
Image credit: Pictures of Money, Flickr, CC:BY
Source: Inside Online Learning Blog – onlinecolleges.net