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Study: Graduates Earning $50K for a Decade Can Make (Public) College Pay Off

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
May 28, 2024

GettyImages-491855944 Education Cost Fund College School

New graduates need to earn at least $50,000 a year, on average, in their first decade off campus to make their degrees worth the cost—that is, if they attended state schools and paid in-state tuition, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Citing new research from Strada Education Foundation, a nonprofit that analyzed federal education and earnings data, the Journal reported that state school graduates making that salary—or making $500,000 before taxes over 10 years—across different sectors will find the investment worth it and should be able to pay off their loans.

“As long as you’re above that $50,000, even in the most expensive states, you’ll still have that positive return on investment,” said Nichole Torpey-Saboe, Strada’s vice president of research, according to the Journal.

James Maiden, 32, dropped out of the University of Missouri-Kansas City about a decade ago as a result of his  need to make money. Earning less than $50,000 as a marketing manager for a nonprofit theater, he returned to school and got his degree in liberal arts in 2019. Getting a job as a communication specialist for a construction company, he now makes almost double what he earned at the theater. 

Public university alumni are more likely to secure good-paying jobs if they had access to college internship opportunities, career coaching and strong job markets, Torpey-Saboe told the Journal.  

Median in-state public college tuition and fees in the United States are $8,000 a year, with room and board running another $11,000, according to Strada. At private nonprofit universities, Strada found the median tuition and fees are about 58 percent more at $30,000.

Half of more than 5,200 people polled by Pew Research Center said it was less important to have a four-year degree today than it was 20 years ago, the Journal reported. Roughly a third of four-year college graduates think going to university is worth the cost, Pew found. The median salary last year for bachelor’s degree holders between the ages of 22 and 27 was $60,000, compared with $36,000 for people in that age range with just a high-school diploma, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

But all is not equal, Strada found, as graduates in some states do better than others, partly because they have access to better job markets. Around 80 percent of young professionals in states including Arizona, California and New York have a positive return on their investment in a public four-year degree, Strada found, even when considering the higher costs of living in those states.

David Medrano, a 32-year-old police officer recruiter, makes a base salary of $75,000 in Tulsa, Okla., which he said has a low cost of living compared with other parts of the country. Its police department requires members to have at least a bachelor’s degree. That was part of the attraction for Medrano, who reasoned that the education requirement meant the department would have a more modern view on police issues.

A first-generation college student, Medrano studied criminal justice at New Mexico State University on a full scholarship and graduated in 2017 with about $5,000 in debt after taking out a loan to buy a car.

“If I had jumped from high school straight into a job, I would not have gotten the same level of development,” he said. 

Business majors at big state schools often get jobs with big salaries, the Journal reported.

Cedric Bandoh, a University of Houston graduate, went to work at HP, the computer and printer maker, when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in supply chain and operations management. Now 31 and a director, he makes six figures.