Table of Contents
Thinking about going back to school? You should know what you’re getting out of your investment.
Tuition doesn’t come cheap, and the price of learning keeps rising every year. The average annual cost has tripled since the late ’80s.
We pulled U.S. census data from 2018 — the latest year with figures available — to see what kind of salary you can expect to receive in each education level as a man or woman over the age of 25. We also looked up which jobs in those levels pay the most, using 2017 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Wondering how your salary stacks up? Curious about how much extra schooling you’ll need to get a job that pays what you want? Want to know how much more (or less) members of the opposite sex are earning?
We’ve got the answers.
Without a high school diploma
Less than 9th grade education
- Median annual income for women: $12,735
- Median annual income for men: $22,679
- Unemployment rate: 5.6%
9th to 12th grade education
- Median annual income for women: $14,176
- Median annual income for men: $23,649
- Unemployment rate: 5.6%
- Mine shuttle car operators: $56,890
- Continuous mining machine operators: $54,620
- Rotary drill operators, oil and gas: $53,980
Trying to get by without a high school diploma is not easy, especially if you’re a woman. The $9,000 gender gap is huge when you’re earning this little.
On average, women with less than a 9th grade education earned only $595 above the Department of Health and Human Services’ benchmark for poverty.
The unemployment rate among Americans without a diploma was the highest of any education level, and was also higher than the national average of 3.9% in 2018.
With a high school diploma
High school graduate
- Median annual income for women: $21,133
- Median annual income for men: $36,476
- Unemployment rate: 4.1%
- Nuclear power reactor operators: $93,370
- Transportation, storage and distribution managers: $92,460
- First-line supervisors of police and detectives: $87,910
More people are getting their high school diploma than ever before. In 2017, the number of Americans over the age of 25 who had a diploma reached 90% for the first time.
It’s easy to see why more Americans are motivated to finish high school. Grads not only earn more on average but they also gain access to a number of high-earning fields.
Unfortunately, as salaries grow, so does the gender gap. On average, women earned $15,343 less per year than their male counterparts.
People with diplomas were less likely to be unemployed than those without (a difference of 1.5 percentage points) but still a bit more likely than the national average.
With college experience, but no degree
- Median annual income for women: $26,498
- Median annual income for men: $42,379
- Unemployment rate: 3.7%
- Electrical and electronics repairers: $78,410
- First-line supervisors of firefighting and prevention workers: $76,170
- Ship engineers: $73,110
Workers with college experience but no degree earn more than those who only have a high school diploma, but not by much: a little over $5,000 per year for women and just under $6,000 for men.
The highest-paying field that doesn’t have work experience requirements is aircraft mechanic, which had a median annual income of $61,020 in 2017.
The gender pay gap gets slightly wider when workers have some college experience, with women earning $15,881 less per year than men.
This is the first level of educational attainment that provided a bit of job security in 2018, with an unemployment rate below the national average.
With an associate’s degree
Associate’s degree holder
- Median annual income for women: $30,957
- Median annual income for men: $50,034
- Unemployment rate: 2.8%
- Air traffic controllers: $124,540
- Radiation therapists: $80,570
- Nuclear technicians: $80,370
Although workers with two-year associate’s degrees do earn more, on average, than people with only some college experience, the difference isn’t as large as you might expect. Women earn only $4,459 more per year, and men earn $7,655 more.
But workers do gain more potential, because associate’s degrees can unlock some lucrative jobs. In 2017, the highest-paying occupation for people with an associate’s degree (air traffic controller) paid over $46,000 more than the highest-paying occupation available to people with only some college experience (electrical repairer).
And the BLS projects that one of the top-paying fields at this level of education, dental hygienist, will add 17,500 new jobs every year until 2026.
At this education level, women earn roughly $19,000 less than men.
With a bachelor’s degree
Bachelor’s degree holder
- Median annual income for women: $43,951
- Median annual income for men: $65,981
- Unemployment rate: 2.2%
- Chief executives: $183,270
- Computer and information systems managers: $139,220
- Architectural and engineering managers: $137,720
A bachelor’s degree typically requires twice as much time to complete as an associate’s degree, but the rise in income is substantial: almost $13,000 more for women and close to $16,000 more for men.
The trend doesn’t always hold true, though. The BLS found that, in 2017, the top-paying fields for people with a bachelor’s degree paid better than six of the seven top-paying fields for people with a master’s degree.
Just keep in mind that most of the highest-paid fields for people with bachelor’s degrees require work experience in a related occupation.
The gender pay gap continues to widen for people with bachelor’s degrees, with the median annual income for women falling $22,000 short of what men earn.
With a master’s degree
Master’s degree holder
- Median annual income for women: $56,545
- Median annual income for men: $85,600
- Unemployment rate: 2.1%
- Nurse anesthetists: $165,120
- Political scientists: $115,110
- Computer and information research scientists: $114,520
A master’s degree usually takes one to two years of full-time study to complete and often requires a bachelor’s degree, too.
Although workers with their master’s do earn more on average than workers who just have their bachelor’s ($12,594 more for women and $19,619 more for men), as mentioned above, a master’s isn’t necessary to slip into some of the highest-paying fields out there.
Plus, the unemployment rate is just 0.1 percentage point lower.
The gender pay gap hits almost $30,000 at this level. And, as is true at every stage on this list, women earn less than men do even when men have less education. A woman with a master’s degree can expect to earn $9,436 less than a man with a bachelor’s degree.
With a professional or doctoral degree
Professional degree holder
- Median annual income for women: $77,868
- Median annual income for men: $120,030
- Unemployment rate: 1.5%
Doctoral degree holder
- Median annual income for women: $77,412
- Median annual income for men: $100,658
- Unemployment rate: 1.6%
- Anesthesiologists: $265,990
- Surgeons: $251,890
- Oral and maxillofacial surgeons: $242,740
A professional degree is a degree that prepares someone to do a specific job, like a lawyer. A doctoral degree usually takes three to six years to complete and requires a bachelor’s or master’s.
Although a doctoral degree can take years longer to attain than a professional degree, the figures from 2018 show that people with a professional degree can earn considerably more money.
That said, women will see less benefit from picking up a professional degree. Here, the gender pay gap is at its absolute worst, as women with such degrees earned $42,162 less than men.
(BLS data on median wages isn’t available for jobs above $208,000, so for this category the wages for highest-paid jobs are averages.)
Now that you’ve seen how much more you can earn with a higher degree, you might be tempted to hit the books and go back to school.
Luckily, this is an ideal time to pursue a new career path. Student loan interest rates are currently at record lows due to the pandemic, helping reduce the burden of today’s high tuition fees. (Even longtime graduates can save thousands by refinancing.)
However, if higher education isn’t a viable option for you right now, you may be able to boost your income in other ways, like starting a side business or investing in the stock market.
Or, if you just want to fatten up your wallet a bit, check out these 17 ways to make extra cash this month.