Education That Offers The Best Return

By Andrew Beattie | November 11, 2009 AAA

Ever wonder how much another two or three years of schooling would do for your earning power? The mantra has always been that education pays for itself, but there is huge variation in how well it pays. We'll look on the return for a couple different career paths. (Sometimes a one-week vacation isn't enough. Learn the pros and cons of an extended break, in Rejuvenate Your Life And Career With A Sabbatical.)

3 Vs. 6
There is a definite difference between a three or four-year degree program versus a six year (or longer) masters/doctorate program. Many longer degrees - medical and the MBA being obvious examples - bring substantially higher earnings in the end. That said, a four-year engineering degree can result in higher lifetime earnings than either a doctor or a MBA because the initial cost is lower and the years spent earning are longer.

Slippery Numbers
When looking at these careers, it's important to remember that these stats are far from clean. The bureau of labor statistics provides broad figures on the earnings within each occupation, but it excludes some types of bonuses and notably overtime pay. Many trades come in on the low end of earnings because so much of their yearly income owes to seasonal overtime and thus is not included.

Pinning the costs of education is also difficult because the school name often impacts the cost, and tuition alone doesn't really capture the all-in costs of an education. Tuition on even a four-year degree can range between $30,000-120,000. For simplicity's sake, we'll consider $50,000 as a base for four years and $90,000 for six. Each occupation will have a estimated lifetime earnings value using the average - assuming you started college at 18 and retired at 65 - minus the initial cost of education. Keep in mind this does not take into account compounding interest of investing portions of your income, and is useful only as a general idea of the potential return over a career lifetime.

  • Nursing (3 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $2,750,590
    Three-year nursing programs make this profession even more attractive, and a $65,130 average salary (remember โ€“ overtime is not included) helps round it out.

  • Computers (4 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $3,153,500
    Many of the computer programming/computer science degrees are four years, and the average salary is a healthy $74,500.

  • Engineering (4 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $3,021,490
    For $50,000 and four years, engineers gain entry into a field where the mean average of annual income is $71,430. This can go up rapidly if they specialize in industries like petroleum or computer hardware.

  • Surgeons (6 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $8,387,570
    Surgeons beat out doctors, dentists, orthodontists, pharmacists and every other profession by having an average salary of $206,770.

  • Lawyers (6 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $5,024,750
    In return for extra schooling, lawyers walk into a $124,750 average salary. The legal profession in general hosts some of the highest average salaries of all occupational groupings.

  • Physicists (6 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $4,274,040
    Earning more than economists, psychologists and other scientists, physicists take home $106,440 on average. Physicists would probably fall off the list if we factored in a more accurate cost of education.

  • Management (6 years) - Estimated Lifetime Earnings: $4,022,710
    The famous MBA does payoff, with an average salary for all management occupations of $100,310. If severance packages and other compensation were included, the figures for executives would likely be much higher.

Conclusion
The highest paying jobs take the top spots in our simple survey. There are many factors that would change this. For example, if the number of unemployed people or people not employed in the field they specialized in were included, the average salaries for MBAs would no doubt drop sharply this year. Also, people switching specialties in post-secondary can double their initial costs as it also increases opportunity cost by adding non-earning years to their lives. In reality, an exercise like this is useful in helping a person choose between several career paths that interest them. That said, income shouldn't be a sole determinant in deciding your career path. Most people would a agree that you get a lot more than money when you find a profession you enjoy day in and day out. (Companies are in need of strategic candidates, not walking resumes. Find out more in Business Grads, Land Your Dream Job.)

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