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Higher the College Degree, Higher the Earnings, Study Finds

More evidence is out showing the investment in higher education pays off.

The latest report on the financial benefits of a college degree released Tuesday comes from the association of State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO). Its State Policy Resource Center found college graduates in all 50 states had higher earnings than those with a high school diploma, and median income rose with each level of degree attainment.

What's interesting about this analysis is that data are available for individual states, and higher education outcomes vary.

Overall, those who earn an associate degree have a median income of $38,607, which is about $9,000 higher than someone who only finished high school (about $29,500). Median income for a bachelor's degree holder was $50,360, and those who complete graduate school(which include master's, professional, and doctoral)earn on average $68,064.

In 2009-10, SHEEO reports public institutions nationwide produced more than 2 million degrees at the associate, bachelor's, and graduate levels—a 13.9 percent increase over 2004-05. Of all degrees earned, 30 percent came from community colleges, and 26 percent each from comprehensive institutions and research/very high activity institutions. Doctoral and research/high activity institutions combined to account for the remaining 18 percent of all degrees.

The payoff in earnings is dependent on the field of study. The median income for associate degrees ranged from $23,175 for education-related degrees to $45,343 for degrees in STEM majors. For those working in health-related fields, having an associate degree increased their earning power by nearly 74 percent with the median salary of $43,934.

The highest wage premium for bachelor's degree holders was also in the health-related disciplines where they earned $56,427 or 124 percent more than someone in the field with only the credential. Degrees in health-related fields also have the highest five-year growth rate. The median-income for someone with a four-year degree in business is $51,564.

The median income for graduate and professional degrees is $68,064, which is $17,704 more than bachelor's degree holders. On the low end, a master's degree in education yields about $55,419, while graduate school in health fields can translate into salaries of about $95,502.

"Expanding higher education degree attainment is clearly an essential and powerful strategy for economic development in a state," the report concludes. "The mixture of degrees produced is influenced by student choice and the programmatic offerings of institutions; both should be informed by the demand for educated people in different fields and by the value they add to the economy."

The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce has also researched the lifetime-earnings advantage of having a college degree by major and the job prospects by field of study.

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