Does Education Make a Difference in Salary?

Master's degree holders in the field of philosophy actually earned 7% less than bachelor's degree holders. In this report, learn about the relationship between education and income in various fields.
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Jane Nam
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Data Reporter

Jane Nam is a staff writer for BestColleges' Data Center. Before her work on higher education data trends, Jane was a news writer and the managing editor for an academic journal. She has graduate degrees in social and political philosophy and women's...
Published on February 21, 2024
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Higher Education Research Analyst

Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
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Data Summary

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    In 2022, people 25 years and older earned an overall median income of $75,980, however, individuals with a bachelor's degree earned much more, with a median income of $118,300.Note Reference [1]
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    Salary increases based on education level varied widely by discipline.Note Reference [2]
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    Overall, individuals who obtained a master's degree in a business field experienced nearly a 42% increase in their salaries compared to when they just had a bachelor's.Note Reference [2]
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    The college you attend can sometimes affect your salary: Graduates of Ivy Plus schools disproportionately represent those in the top 0.1% of earners.Note Reference [3]

Overall, college graduates tend to make more money than those who haven't earned a degree. In fact, more education leads to higher salaries on average. However, a closer look at the numbers, especially by major, shows that this is not the case for every discipline.

If you're deciding whether pursuing an advanced degree is the smart choice for you, consider the salary breakdowns by educational level in our report below. You may also want to consider some of the alternatives, such as trade schools or an associate degree program.

What Is the Relationship Between Education and Income?

Education and Income

According to 2022 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there is a strong correlation between education and income.Note Reference [1]

  • Overall, people 25 years and older earned a median annual income of $75,980.
  • Individuals with a bachelor's degree or higher made a median income of $118,300.
  • Those with a college degree made nearly 250% more than those with less than a ninth-grade level of education and 130% more than those with just a high school diploma.

Education and Employment

Salary isn't the only factor to consider when thinking about the benefits of education. According to the BLS, people who attain more advanced degrees experience lower rates of unemployment.Note Reference [4]

  • The average unemployment rate for individuals with an educational level of less than a high school diploma was 5.5%.
  • In contrast, bachelor's degree holders had an unemployment rate of 2.2%.

Did You Know...

How many college graduates are unemployed?

In the U.S., over 2% of bachelor's degree holders were unemployed in 2023 — that's about 868,000 people.Note Reference [5] During the same year, 2.1% of people in the U.S. with any college degree were unemployed.

Boosting Your Salary Without a Four-Year Degree

There are more alternatives to getting a traditional four-year degree than ever. Some high-paying jobs that don't require a degree include air traffic controller, with a median salary of $132,250, and elevator installer and repairer, with a median salary of $99,000.Note Reference [6], Note Reference [7]

Another option is to accumulate credentials — often referred to as stackable credentials — while working toward a degree. These credentials can be in anything, from Arabic to cybersecurity, and can give students a competitive edge on the job market.

Which Majors Are Worth an Advanced Degree?

It may not always be worth it to pursue an advanced degree. In this section, we compare the percentage difference in salaries between a bachelor's and master's degree by discipline. Note that a master's degree typically takes two years to complete and can cost over $57,000.

  • Biology majors with a master's degree earned nearly 60% more on average than biology majors with a bachelor's degree.Note Reference [2]
  • History majors who earned a master's degree, however, experienced less than a 14% increase in salary.Note Reference [2]
  • Philosophy majors with master's degrees actually experienced a decrease of 6.9% in their salaries on average.Note Reference [2]
Difference in Salary by Discipline and Educational Level, 2022
Discipline Bachelor's Salary Master's Salary Salary Bump
Biology $42,860 $68,540 60%
Transportation $59,930 $84,100 40%
Psychology $42,130 $58,280 38%
Engineering Technology $65,710 $90,610 38%
Engineering $76,250 $98,040 29%
Education $41,570 $52,880 27%
Languages $47,880 $60,160 26%
English $43,680 $53,320 22%
Computer and Information Sciences $86,970 $105,890 22%
History $46,660 $53,140 14%
Philosophy $49,260 $45,880 -7%
Source: NACENote Reference [2]

The College You Go to Can Affect Your Job

Where you get an education can also make a difference in salary — at least when it comes to ultra-prestigious colleges and universities.

Ivy Plus schools refer to a group of 12 highly selective private colleges including the eight Ivy Leagues and the University of Chicago, Duke, MIT, and Stanford.

Less than 1% of people in the U.S. attend these 12 colleges. However, economists at Harvard and Brown found that graduates of Ivy Plus schools disproportionately make up those in the top 0.1% of earners. They also disproportionately hold political positions and attend Ivy Plus graduate schools.Note Reference [3]

It's important to note that students from families in the top 1% of earners are twice as likely to attend an Ivy Plus college compared to those from middle-class families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.Note Reference [3] Ivy Plus education correlated with higher salaries, but Ivy Plus students also came from far wealthier families. In short, Ivy Plus graduates' post-college wealth and earnings may not directly result from having an Ivy Plus degree.

Percentage of Ivy Plus College Graduates That Make Up a Prestigious Category, 2023
Category Percentage Who Attended an Ivy Plus College
Supreme Court Justices (since 1963) 71%
Rhodes Scholars 48%
U.S. Presidents (since 1960) 42%
McArthur Grant Recipients 29%
New York Times and Wall Street Journal Journalists 26%
Current U.S. Senators 25%
Attend Elite Graduate School 20%
Top 0.1% of Earners 13%
Fortune 500 CEOs 12%
Source: Opportunity InsightsNote Reference [3]

While attending an Ivy Plus school might give you an advantage in the job market, it isn't the be-all and end-all. There are other important considerations when thinking about whether the college you go to matters. In your industry, for example, employers may privilege work experience or a particular skill set over school name.

Lastly, graduates of big-name private institutions often have more student debt compared to public college attendees.Note Reference [8]


  1. HINC-01. Selected Characteristics of Households by Total Money Income. Current Population Survey (CPS) Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau. 2023. (back to footnote 1 in content ⤶)
  2. First Destinations for the College Class of 2022. Interactive Dashboard. National Association of Colleges and Employers. January 2024. (back to footnote 2 in content ⤶)
  3. Chetty, R., D. Deming, J. N. Friedman. Diversifying Society's Leaders? The Determinants and Consequences of Admission to Highly Selective Colleges. Opportunity Insights. October 2023. (back to footnote 3 in content ⤶)
  4. Education Pays, 2022. Career Outlook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. May 2023. (back to footnote 4 in content ⤶)
  5. Employment Status of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population 25 Years and Over by Educational Attainment, Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. January 2024. (back to footnote 5 in content ⤶)
  6. Air Traffic Controllers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 2023. (back to footnote 6 in content ⤶)
  7. Elevator and Escalator Installers and Repairers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. September 2023. (back to footnote 7 in content ⤶)
  8. Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2022. The Federal Reserve. February 2024. (back to footnote 8 in content ⤶)