The Million-Dollar Edge of a College Degree

The million-dollar edge of a college degree

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College grads typically earn more than workers with high school diplomas, but just how much varies from job to job. Earning a bachelor's degree is statistically a huge payoff in many professions, but for some, such as electricians, janitors and postal service mail carriers, there's no difference between the lifetime earnings of college and high school grads, according to research from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. In fact, workers with bachelor's degrees in jobs such as carpentry actually have a lower median wage than those without.

Read on to discover the jobs where the difference between a bachelor's degree and a high school diploma is at least seven figures over a lifetime. Culled from Georgetown's The College Payoff study, these jobs don't absolutely require a four-year degree to break in, but they do provide substantial financial incentive for those who hit the books.

The "median pay difference" listed is the lifetime pay difference between earning a degree versus a high school diploma.

Top brass in public and private positions

Position: Chief executive officers and legislators Median lifetime pay difference: $1.9 million

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell built their empires without degrees, but that's not how most CEOs make it, says Stephen Rose, research professor at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce and a co-author of The College Payoff study.

"If you look at CEOs of the 500 largest corporations, what you find is that 93% have a bachelor's degree and 50% have a graduate degree," he says. "By and large, most people aren't just supertalented like Bill Gates."

Rose adds that even for grads who don't major in business or entrepreneurship, a four-year degree still hones leadership, critical thinking, problem-solving skills and the ability to see a long-term task through from beginning to end.

Successfully break in, and you'll be handsomely rewarded. While Fortune 500 CEOs earn well into the millions, the median pay for chief executive officers is $165,080 per year, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS. In the government sector, the annual salary for most representatives and senators is currently $174,000 per year.

Getting Wall Street cred

Position: Securities, commodities, financial services sales agents Median lifetime pay difference: $1.5 million

In the financial services field, those with some college education make $1.9 million over their lifetimes, but college grads make $3.4 million on average.

With a median salary of $70,190 per year, according to the BLS, workers in this field typically have cushy jobs that come with generous benefits packages. A four-year degree in economics, statistics or mathematics can provide securities, commodities and financial services workers with technical know-how.

But having a college degree serves a valuable networking function, too, says Jonathan Thom, a vice president of professional staffing at Express Employment Professionals in Oklahoma City. Express is one of the largest staffing firms in North America.

Because they interact with high-net-worth investors and institutional clients with bachelor's or graduate degrees, workers in this field need to have a college degree "to show credibility," Thom says.

As important as the number-crunching know-how, Thom adds, is the exposure to industry insiders through internships, alumni networks and mentoring programs that undergrads gain.

Showing your ROI

Position: Financial manager Median lifetime pay difference: $1.3 million

A four-year degree in business, finance or accounting can get your foot in the door, but Brandi Britton, a district president with the worldwide staffing firm Robert Half International' says grads will also need work and management experience outside the classroom through internships, summer jobs and extracurricular activities.

"Employers will look for small things in the leadership area that a lot people don't always think are important like, for example, did you lead a group at school? Did you lead your sorority or fraternity, or if you worked at, let's say, Starbucks, were you in a capacity where you led other employees?" she says. "Things like that demonstrate that you have that entrepreneurial behavior but also that desire to take on more responsibility."

Britton adds that companies that employ financial management professionals focus strongly on employee return on investment -- specifically, whether managers are saving the company money, improving service or making internal processes more streamlined. To stand above the wave of other grads, Britton encourages those breaking into the field to highlight where they've made organizational improvements, even if it's on a small level.

Getting degree in the right field

Position: Miscellaneous managers Median lifetime pay difference: $1.3 million

Managers of all types usually get paid more than those they manage, but a degree in a business field isn't the only way to move up the corporate ladder.

"(Students) should think broadly about what fields they might be interested in, what type of career that they might like to see and get those core skills in those areas," says G. Jason Jolley, an adjunct assistant professor of finance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For example, students interested in managing engineers can break in with an engineering degree in addition to business experience.

Students aiming for a management role in a highly prestigious organization should also carefully decide where they attend school, adds Jolley.

"If your goal is to work on Wall Street eventually in some sort of management role, going to a highly regarded college, particularly one with a highly regarded business school, you're more likely to be exposed to the recruiters from those firms," he says.

Building on intangible skills

Position: Models, demonstrators and product promoters Median lifetime pay difference: $1.3 million

"A product promoter could be somebody (such as a representative) at a high-end retail shop that says, 'Would you like to try this fragrance?' to somebody who's really arranging product placement on TV and in movies," says Stephen Rose of Georgetown. "The one that's doing the perfuming is in a very low-paying job, and the one that's negotiating contracts with TV stations and movie companies is in the high-end job. ... What we see is that more educated people (in this field) have been able to get the top spots in that job."

Even in an industry such as modeling that seems largely contingent on physical attractiveness, workers still need the skills to build their brand, communicate articulately and create an effective career strategy to get to the top, says Rose. Those intangible skills, he adds, "can be the difference between success and failure."

Experience in and out of classroom

Position: Marketing and sales managers Median lifetime pay difference: $1.3 million

The BLS reports that candidates who have course work in management, accounting, business law, statistics, finance and marketing will have an advantage in the job market over those who don't. Willis Turner, president and CEO of Sales and Marketing Executives International, a professional association for sales and marketing managers, says the field is competitive. Candidates also need to come armed with additional experience gained outside the classroom.

"Valuable experience can be gained through co-op and internship programs," Turner says. "The candidate's portfolio should include evidence that will help the potential employer see a balance between education, work and community service."

Once you've broken in, the payoffs are significant. Sales managers earn a median pay of $98,530 per year, while marketing managers rake in a median salary of $108,260 per year, according to the BLS.

Showing you have what it takes

Position: Salespeople in wholesale and manufacturing Median lifetime pay difference: $1.3 million

A four-year degree pays off even for sales reps below the managerial level. Though the median pay for these workers is roughly half of what their managerial counterparts earn, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lifetime earnings for workers with a high school diploma are also low enough that the difference in lifetime earnings stays the same.

The value in having a four-year degree in this field lies less in acquiring technical skills necessary for a specific job and more in demonstrating soft skills that can push sales reps to generate commissions, explains James H. Wyckoff, director of the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

"Individuals with a (bachelor's degree) have shown they have the personal traits like persistence and motivation to actually do what is necessary to get a B.A. that those with only a high school degree have not (shown)," he says. "It is not the knowledge that a B.A. confers that is important, but the signal it provides about personal traits that are often hard to measure or determine in an interview."

For analytical problem solvers

Position: First-line supervisors and managers, nonretail work Median lifetime pay difference: $1.2 million

Budgeting, management, human resource and accounting skills all combine for workers who manage a sales team in industries ranging from telecommunications to wholesale trade services. First-line supervisors act as a liaison between production workers and upper-level executives.

Their responsibilities include creating policies that meet the goals of the organization and the workers, improving company productivity on a ground level, and nipping production and human resource problems in the bud before they escalate.

While median pay is $70,520 per year according to the BLS, only those who have the analytical and problem-solving skills that frequently accompany a four-year degree will be able to snag such a salary.

Surpassing the supervisory role

Position: General and operations managers Median lifetime pay difference: $1.1 million

Considered one of the highest executive positions, general and operations managers work with the executive team to create company-wide initiatives and oversee daily operations in public and private sector organizations, reports the BLS. They also bring in a sweet median pay of $95,150 per year, with the top 25% earning $144,050 or more.

Thom of Express Employment Professionals says it's technically possible to break into this field with only a high school diploma, but most workers without a college degree top out at the supervisor level. To set yourself up for a general operations manager job, Thom recommends an undergraduate course of study that mixes general business classes with accounting, finance, management and statistics courses. Students who gain each of these skills leave campus with "a better fiscal understanding of the business, which is always important."

Building from scratch

Position: Construction management Median lifetime pay difference: $1.1 million

People who can plan and coordinate a construction project from beginning to end are rewarded with a median salary of $83,860, reports the BLS.

Richard Lambeck' department chair of the Construction Management Department at New York University's Schack Institute of Real Estate, says degrees in this field focus on helping students hone their ability to create budgets, manage teams of subcontractors and ensure that work done is installed properly.

"It's all about mitigating risk in the construction industry," he says, which "is looking for people who understand the process, how they can reduce their risk, how they can make sure the project is going to be on time and within the budget that's originally established between the contractor and the developer."

The real benefit to getting a degree, he adds, is that students get an interdisciplinary skills set. The skills set mixes technical know-how in the construction field with business development, labor relations, contract evaluation and project management course work.

"We're giving people the skills to manage the construction process," he says.