Home Online Education Access and Affordability Buyer Beware: Examining Earnings by Degree and College Debt
Buyer Beware: Examining Earnings by Degree and College Debt

Buyer Beware: Examining Earnings by Degree and College Debt


The latest research report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, Buyer Beware – First-Year Earnings and Debt for 37,000 College Majors at 4,400 Institutions was issued this week. Authors and researchers Anthony P. Carnevale, Ban Cheah, Martin Van Der Werf, and Artem Gulish continue their analysis of the continually expanding data provided by the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard that arguable began with their 2019 report, A First Try at ROI: Ranking 4,500 Colleges.

The headline news — that you can make more money with an associate degree in nursing from Santa Rosa Junior College in California than with a graduate degree from some programs at Harvard University — is not particularly new. A number of states have issued reports from time to time reporting the average incomes for graduates from their state-supported institutions, and some associate degree graduates’ earnings have exceeded those of bachelor’s and master’s graduates (usually in high-demand healthcare or STEM programs).

However, the College Scorecard presents data collected from the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities, so that anyone can theoretically compare data from their local college or target college to another college. I use the term “theoretically,” because the Scorecard does not report salary data for graduates from smaller programs.

The Scorecard also does not report salary data for graduates who were deceased, performing military service, pursuing additional education, or unemployed for the first year after graduation. While the researchers note that the data covers programs from which the majority (80 to 84 percent) of federal student aid recipients graduate, certain majors or institutions may have significant percentages of graduates who are not included in the report, because they continue on to graduate school or enroll in the military.

In aggregate, the headline findings for overlap in earnings among degree category are:

  • 27 percent of workers with an associate degree earn more than the median for workers with a bachelor’s degree.
  • 35 percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more than the median for workers with a master’s degree.
  • 31 percent of workers with a master’s degree earn more than the median for workers with a doctoral degree.
  • 22 percent of workers with a master’s degree earn more than the median for workers with a professional degree.

I don’t find these results to be surprising or alarming. As noted, all of the percentages cited are a minority of the graduates for each level, and the levels are aggregated. I would be more concerned if the percentage of workers with a lower-level degree in the same major earned more than graduates with the higher-level degree.

The paper’s authors report that the release of the program-level earnings data will eventually have profound consequences for the creation and evaluation of college level programs. Previously, earnings data was aggregated across all majors resulting in an overall average for the institution. By issuing data by program, consumers can compare earnings for the same program across institutions, data that theoretically should be similar but may not be due to partnerships with employers that enable some institutions to build their degrees to more specifically match higher-earning jobs.

While the earnings data is important, the authors also note that the debt information is important as well. Making more money by pursuing additional education may or may not be worth it if you have to borrow more money to earn the degree.

The first-year earnings by degree vary considerably. The median first-year earnings for workers who earned associate degrees are $2,600 a month ($31,200 per year). The median first-year earnings for workers who earned bachelor’s degrees is $2,883 per month ($34,800 per year).

However, 42 percent of all associate degree programs led to higher median first-year earnings than the median for bachelor’s degree programs. The earnings for associate degree programs ranged from $1,000 per month to $7,000 per month.

There can also be wide variation in earnings by major. The spread of earnings for a bachelor’s in business administration ranges from $20,900 per year for graduates of Mitchell College to $100,500 per year for graduates of Bismarck State College.

A similar example exists with students who earn a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision. Graduates of Mercy College’s master’s program earn $95,700 per year, which is more than triple the earnings of graduates of Valdosta State University’s master’s program who earn $30,300 per year.

Reports about the value of a college degree often cite differences in average lifetime earnings for degrees. Using the data from the College Scorecard, the authors provide an insightful listing of the percentage of graduates of programs that pay a minimum of $50,000 in the first year after college:

  • 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees programs
  • 52 percent of master’s degree programs
  • 90 percent of doctoral degree programs
  • 84 percent of professional degree programs

Part 3 of the report creates earnings net of debt for all reported programs at all universities.

The authors write that the measure shows how much money remains from graduates’ earnings after they make their student loan payments by subtracting median monthly federal student loan payments from median monthly earnings.

However, the report continues to look at data from degree level and major without considering that students earning higher level degrees may have borrowed money at the previous level. While earnings reported for a master’s graduate are likely correct for students who borrowed money, the debt repayment amounts are for the master’s degree earned and may not represent a person’s total debt if they borrowed to earn their bachelor’s degree.

Conversely, some parents may help out for the costs of their children’s undergraduate education and leave them on their own for their graduate education. So I can understand why the authors and researchers chose to keep the data separate.

While the report was interesting, I did not find the tools provided to be useful at all unless you want to understand differences by states. Until there is more ability to compare institutions, I recommend using the tools in the College Scorecard.

It’s clear to me that as more consumers are aware of the College Scorecard and the data collected for all institutions, the more transparency we will see from institutions. It would behoove administrators like enrollment management directors and department chairs to examine the data for their institution and compare it to data from other institutions in their peer group.

If their institution is behind, it would likely pay for them to find ways to improve outcomes. At the end of the day, those types of improvements benefit students and the institution.

I applaud the Department of Education for continuing to update the College Scorecard. At the same time, I will never be a fan of the College Scorecard until it makes earnings and borrowing data available for all graduates.

At the institution that I led for 16 years, American Public University System (APUS), approximately 72 percent of our graduates have no debt. However, the Scorecard reports that 69 percent of APUS students receive Federal Loans, which conflicts with the actual percentage of students who borrow.

The Scorecard footnote for the percentage of students who receive federal loans states that the percentage reported reflects the percentage of first time full-time undergraduate students who borrow money. First time full-time undergraduate students represent less than 10 percent of APUS students.

Because APUS is proud of its affordability, we are also proud of the fact that keeping our tuition low allows many students to pay for their tuition through employer tuition repayment plans like the Department of Defense’s tuition assistance program. With many of our students’ education funded by employers, a substantial number of our degree programs have a median debt of $0.

However, since the College Scorecard only includes data from students who pay for their degree by using Federal Student Aid, the median debt by degree at APUS ranges from $7,125 to $36,290. If researchers, policymakers, and consumers are going to continue to utilize this data, it’s time to create a unified federal database that reflects all students served by universities.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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