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Degree Matters: Promoting the Payoff

University Business, Sept 2011

As students returned to campus this year, administrators had the chance to motivate them to succeed in school with findings of the most recent study on how college degrees are critical to economic opportunity. Conducted by The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, with support from the Lumina Foundation, the study found that those with a bachelor's degree now make 84 percent more over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma, up from 75 percent in 1999. Today's bachelor's degree holders can expect median lifetime earnings approaching $2.3 million, compared to the $1.3 million averaged by those who only completed high school. Titled "The College Payoff," the report notes significant variations in earnings based on age, gender, race/ethnicity, and occupation—and presents lifetime earnings by education level for 300 distinct occupations.

What role do campus officials play in spreading the word about the economic returns of a college education? "If [students] have information, they'll make better choices, and if they make better choices they're more likely to finish," points out study co-author Stephen J. Rose. "We're not calling for 'no one should major in philosophy,'" he adds. "What we are saying is that students should just be aware of what the consequences are. There's wide variation inside every major."

Many institutions do share statistics on earning power—both college-specific numbers from alumni and national Census and other data. Offices communicating the message include admissions, academic advising, and career centers. There's also no shortage of presidential speeches and op-ed pieces related to the value of a degree.

"We share details about the earning power of a degree with prospective students as early as middle school," says Allison Carter, director of admissions at Michigan Technological University. All prospective students are also told the value of a Michigan Tech degree specifically.

During admissions action days at Susquehanna University (Pa.), high school students play a version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," in which one question references average salaries based on degree attainment, says Brenda Fabian, director of career services. In her office, Fabian adds, individual advising appointments cover salary (among other work values), and when students are considering dropping out, advisors share a slide with a Department of Labor quote on educational attainment's relationship to employment.

Career center advisors are also likely to stress that a degree is not just about earning potential. Sue Dahlin, assistant director for career advising at the University of Puget Sound (Wash.), where earning power is communicated to students in several major ways, is also sure to note this to students: "You could be making a lot of money, but doing something you hate. Or doing something you love and earning less."

The College Payoff can be found at

—Melissa Ezarik