From Degree to Paycheck: Which Degrees Offer the Best Return?

By Clare Kaufman
From Degree to Paycheck

For most people, a college degree is second only to a home as the biggest investment they will ever make. It's also among the most reliable investments, paying dividends throughout the graduate's life. To make the most of your college tuition dollar, consider these five high-value degrees.

With college tuition climbing, prospective students may be wondering whether that college degree is really worth it. The short answer: yes. Bachelor's degree holders earn an average of 88 percent more than high school graduates, an additional $23,300 per year. Over a lifetime, they net $2.1 million compared to $1.2 for a high school graduate.

The gap widens further for degrees in areas such as business, healthcare, and technology. Here's a look at which degrees get the most mileage in the marketplace.

1. Master of Business Administration (MBA)

There's a reason the MBA is the most popular graduate degree program on campus. Business school graduates experience an average 35 percent increase from their pre-MBA salary. Entry-level MBAs can expect a paycheck 71 percent higher than they would have received with a bachelor's degree. Those bonuses more than offset the cost of tuition.

Financially savvy MBA candidates can lessen the impact of tuition costs by continuing to work and taking advantage of low-interest student loans. A U.S. Department of Education study found that three out of four business school students worked more than 35 hours per week while completing their MBA. Online MBA programs play a role in this trend, allowing working adults to work toward the degree after business hours.

Bottom Line: Two years in business school will pay dividends for a lifetime--both in terms of higher pay and broader career opportunities.

2. Bachelor of Science in Engineering (BS in Engineering)

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, starting salaries for engineers are among the highest for all college graduates. Four years in the college engineering classroom can net graduates an average starting salary of around $50,000. Petroleum engineers lead the pack with a median salary of $60,718 in 2007, with chemical engineers not far behind. Overall, engineers in the various specialties earn median salaries ranging from $65,000 to $100,000.

Bottom Line: A bachelor's degree in engineering provides the right balance of applied job skills and general college education to unlock real value in the job market.

3. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree

Nursing is the success story of the current economy; the BLS calls the job outlook "excellent," citing 23 percent job growth overall, up to 39 percent in physician offices. The booming demand for nurses, which already constitutes the largest sector of the health care job market at 2.9 million, translates into salaries, benefits, student loan forgiveness programs, and even signing bonuses.

A four-year BSN is one of three routes to licensure as a registered nurse. Other options include the two- to three-years Bachelor of Science in Engineering (BS in Engineering) or the three-year Registered Nursing diploma. The BSN offers the broadest opportunities of the three.

Bottom Line: An aging population promises a strong future-and a stable income-for nurses, even amid economic downturn.

4. Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies

Paralegals are taking on more tasks previously reserved for attorneys-with a college education that costs a fraction of their J.D.-holding colleagues. A two-year associate degree in Paralegal Studies is the most common route into a paralegal career. Full-fledged attorneys, by contrast, spend six years in college-four years to earn a bachelor's degree and then two years at a professional law school. Nevertheless, paralegals are entrusted with high-level roles such as research analysis and preparing legal documents.

An experienced paralegal makes an average salary of $65,368. Considering that the average total cost for an associate degree at an online or campus-based college is $26,400, the degree will pay for itself many times over.

Bottom Line:Paralegals enjoy a direct route from community college classroom to courtroom, without missing out on the benefits of a legal paycheck.

5. Associate of Applied Science in Information Technology (AAS in IT)

The IT department is no longer the province of high-school computer geeks and prodigies without a college degree. Advancing technology and job market competition have made an associate or bachelor's degree a basic qualification for an IT career. Even college dropout Bill Gates has since gone on to finish his Harvard bachelor's degree. Two years in school can afford techies with a wealth of applied skills in network, database, and systems administration; computer programming, Web design, and more. An IT specialist makes an average salary of $62,521; managers average $83,350.

Bottom Line: Applied training in Information Technology carries significant value in an information economy, and IT salaries show it.

Higher education is worth the investment in nearly any field-but some degrees are worth more than others. Some job skills can be learned "live," in the workplace, but a college degree affords the foundation for on-the-job training-and a foot in the door.

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