If you’re thinking about going to college, or you have a child who is, you’ve probably experienced a fair amount of sticker shock when considering the cost of attending different schools.
Though a college education is an investment in the future — as with any investment, it’s important to consider what you’ll get in return to determine if it’s worth it. While it’s important to weigh the cost of college against future income and earning potential, there are also intangibles to consider, things like friendships, network building, and other soft skills.
This guide and benchmark aren’t official measures and they’re not set in stone by any means; we know there are many reasons to get an education, many of which can’t be (and probably shouldn’t be) measured and quantified. This guide is meant to offer tips to help in a challenging and competitive working world. Your mileage — and your life’s path — may vary!
Average Costs of a Degree
Choosing the right college is a multifaceted decision. Considerations include where the school is located, whether it has programs that meet your interests, what student culture is like, and, of course, price.
The price tag for college can be jaw dropping. The total cost for tuition, fees, and room and board at a private non-profit four-year college can set you back more than $38,070 per year on average.
Head to an elite private school like Columbia University in New York and tuition and fees can be upward of
$60,000 per year. At a public four-year college, you can expect to pay an average of about $10,000 per year in tuition and fees, which is cheaper, but still nothing to sniff at.
Return on Investment by Education Level
One way to make this consideration is by looking at the ratio of the cost of your degree to your expected income once you graduate. Your return on education is much like a traditional return on investment calculation, which looks at the ratio between net profit and cost from investing resources.
In this case, time and money are the resources you’re investing, and your future income is the profit. The return on investment for your education will depend largely on how much you spend on your schooling, what type of job you get after school, and to a certain extent, what you major in.
Associate’s Degree Return on Investment
Associate’s degrees can typically be completed in one to two years and often at a community college, which can make them more affordable than other four-year degrees. According to data from Education Data Initiative, the return on investment for an associates degree is 363.5% after 20 years.
Bachelor’s Degree Return on Investment
Bachelor’s degrees typically take students four years to complete. According to Education Data Initiative, the return on investment for a bachelor’s degree is 38.1% after 20 years. Though this estimated return on investment can vary greatly based on the major you pursue. For example, computer science degrees offer an ROEd of 716.6%.
Master’s Degree Return on Investment
A Master’s degree can be completed after a student receives their Bachelor’s degree. This degree allows the student to specialize in a specific area of interest, such as those who pursue a Master in Business Administration. The return on investment for a master’s degree is 90.1% after 20 years, according to Education Data Initiative.
Doctoral Degree Return on Investment
A doctoral degree is generally the most advanced degree one can get in a particular field. Doctorate degrees can take up to eight years to complete, though the exact timing will vary depending on factors like the program type, structure, and research being completed by the doctoral candidate. The estimated return on investment for doctorate degrees is 84.0% after 20 years according to Education Data Initiative.
Professional Degree Return on Investment
Professional degrees are advanced degrees that prepare a student to work in a particular field, for example law or pharmacy. After 20 years, the return on investment for a professional degree is 60.4%, according to Education Data Initiative.
Highest Earning Degrees
The return on education will vary depending on the degree program you chose. For example, a student with a computer science degree may earn more than an English major. There are of course exceptions, but it’s a good idea to understand the norm for particular fields. These are some of the high-earning degrees by level.
As mentioned, an associate’s degree takes about two years to complete and can often be finished at a community college for significantly less than it may cost to get a four-year degree. Associate’s degrees often allow students to specialize in a specific trade or field. And in some cases this specialization can lead to a high-earning career.
One of the top-earners post-associate degree are air traffic controllers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Air traffic controllers earn a median income of over $129,000.
Dental hygienists, MRI technicians, and funeral service managers all earn an average salary of $70,000 or higher, making them top associates degrees based on earning potential.
According to Best Colleges, some of the bachelor degrees with the highest earning potential include petroleum engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, computer science, electrical engineering, and public accounting.
For example in 2021, petroleum engineers earned a median salary of $130,850. Accountants and Auditors earned a median salary of $77,250 per year, according to the BLS.
Some people may consider adding a certification to their resume in order to boost their earning potential. Professional organizations often award certifications for specific skill sets. Some top earning and in-demand certifications include those for project management or data engineering.
Bachelor’s Degree ROI by Major
The return on investment can vary quite a bit based on the type of bachelor degree pursued. As mentioned, computer science degrees have some of the best return on investment for Bachelor’s degrees — about 716.6% over 40 years, according to Education Data Initiative. Take a look below at a list of majors and their estimated return on investment after 40 years, according to Education Data Initiative:
• Business finance — 710.2%
• Business accounting — 547.2%
• Electrical engineering — 517.8%
• Biology — 225.0%
• Communications — 209.3%
• Architecture — 188.6%
• Art Degree — 70.5%
Need help financing your education?
SoFi private student loans have no fees
and flexible repayment options.
Consider What Can’t Be Measured by Money
Yes, going to college or pursuing other higher education opportunities can be expensive. But in addition to the cost and potential boost in earning potential, there are a variety of intangible benefits that can’t be measured by a dollar. For example, college students living on campus are gaining a newfound independence and developing life skills they’ll carry with them.
College might be when a student learns how to budget or applies for their first credit card. SoFi’s Ca$h Course: A Student’s Guide to Money is filled with strategies, ideas, and tools to help college students manage their finances.
Plus, many colleges have strong alumni networks that can help when a student is looking for a job post-grad. Students have the chance to not only get to know themselves better, but in the process they may make life-long friends.
One way to improve return on investment is to lower the amount of money you are paying for school. This could be particularly useful if you already know you want to pursue a career in a relatively low paying field.
One way to offset the cost of tuition is to look for scholarship programs that help pay your tuition or other college costs. Many schools offer need-based financial aid to families who might otherwise struggle to pay tuition costs. In some cases, you could even get a full ride.
You can find scholarships by looking at your school’s financial aid website, connecting with your guidance counselor, or reviewing databases or online scholarship search tools.
In some cases you may be able to apply for unclaimed scholarships to help supplement the aid you have already received.
Students may qualify for grants directly from their school or through federal financial aid. Grants typically do not require repayment so they can be an incredibly helpful addition to a student’s financial toolkit when it comes to paying for college. Pell Grants are one type of grant awarded by the federal government to students who demonstrate exceptional financial need.
Recommended: What Are Pell Grants?
Pell Grants are usually only available to undergraduate students. In order to maintain eligibility for a Pell Grant, undergrads will also be required to meet satisfactory academic progress requirements.
Student Loan Forgiveness Programs
If you need to take out student loans to help pay for college, keep an eye on your terms and interest rates to help you keep costs down. If you take out federal loans and plan to work for certain non-profits or government organizations, you may be eligible for loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. After making 10 years worth of qualifying monthly payments, the remaining balance of your loan may be forgiven through this program.
Private Student Loans
Private student loans don’t qualify for federal benefits like PSLF, but they can be helpful tools for students who have exhausted their federal financial aid option.
If you are interested in paying for college or another higher education degree with a private student loan, take the time to shop around and review interest rates, terms, and other fees or benefits offered by lenders. For more information on evaluating loan options, take a look at SoFi’s private student loan guide.
Employer Support After Graduation
Finally, some employers may also help you pay back your student loans as part of a benefits package. Consider working for an employer who offers these benefits.
College students can estimate the return on their educational investment by looking at how much they’ll pay for their degree and comparing it to their lifetime earnings. Though important, the money you’ll eventually earn isn’t the only thing you should consider when choosing a college. Getting a bachelor’s degree can help you acquire skills and expand your horizons in ways that aren’t directly related to your degree or job prospects.
When you decide on the right school for you, take the time to consider all your options — including scholarships, grants, federal and private student loans, post-graduation repayment programs, and other sources of public and private funding — to help you achieve your education and career goals.
Visit SoFi to learn more about how to pay for college and whether SoFi’s private student loans can help.
SoFi Loan Products
SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Bank, N.A., NMLS #696891 (Member FDIC). For additional product-specific legal and licensing information, see SoFi.com/legal. Equal Housing Lender.
SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility-criteria for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.
Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.
Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.
External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third-party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.