College degrees can have a major affect on wages over the course of a lifetime. Median income levels rise with every higher level degree someone holds, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, the field of your degree affects earning potential.

Associate Earnings

The bureau noted that even the difference in median income between an associate degree and high school diploma is significant. In 2010, the median weekly pay with a diploma was $652. With an associate's degree, median pay increased to $785, a $133 weekly difference. This amounts to a $6,916 difference per year. Given that an associate degree often costs as little as $10,000 to $12,000, the return on this two-year education appears high.

Bachelor's Earnings

Earnings with a bachelor's degree take a dramatic jump, according to the bureau. Weekly median pay was $1,066 in 2012 with a bachelor's degree. This is $281 more per week than with an associate's and $412 more than with a diploma. The annual difference in median income with a bachelor's degree was $21,424. Including room and board, students can often complete four-year undergraduate degrees at an in-state school for around $60,000 to $80,000. By living at home, the tuition and fees for a bachelor's can be as low as $30,000 to $40,000 total.

Advanced Degree Earnings

Naturally, earning potential spikes even higher with advanced degrees, such as a master's, doctoral or professional degree. Weekly income with a master's degree was $1,300, according to the bureau. Doctoral degree holders earned $1,624 and professional degree holders $1,735. A typical worker with a professional degree, such as a lawyer or medical doctor, earned about three times more per week than someone with a diploma. The weekly pay difference was $1,083 between these two levels of education.


The value of a degree from an earnings standpoint varies by field. In some cases, people seek degrees as much for a passion for the work as they do the income opportunities. According to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data, business undergraduate degree holders earned a median income of $60,000 to $62,000, depending on whether they were self-employed or worked for an employer. Science and engineering bachelor's degree holders earned $66,000 from employers. Education and arts and humanities degrees showed the lowest earning potential at $44,000 and $51,000, respectively.

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