Salary Survey Extra: The impact on income of higher education

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Salary Survey Extra is a series of periodic dispatches that give added insight into the findings of our most recent Salary Survey. These posts contain previously unpublished Salary Survey data.

Here's a fairly common college-related question: Does having a higher education degree lead to earning more money?It costs a lot of money to attend a university and graduate with a degree. It takes focus, patience, and countless hours of diligent study just to be in a position to apply to attend a university, to say nothing of actually getting accepted and successfully managing all of the logistical alignments. And don’t forget the literal years required to choose, carry out, and complete an actual course of study once you get there.

If you’re going to go through all of that, then it had better be worth it on the other side. It’s expected when applying for many, if not most jobs, both in the information technology realm and elsewhere in the working world, that the applicant have a college education. So just by removing a prohibitively high barrier to entry, holding a university degree is, in some sense, worth the travails of getting one.

We’re talking about the Salary Survey, however, so “worth it” definitely has compensation connotations. That is to say, is the presumed increased earning power conferred by a university degree worth the literal and figurative investments required to obtain one?

There’s anecdotal evidence on both sides, of course. Some of the most venerated and successful figures in the professional IT landscape started college but dropped out before completing whatever course of study they were pursuing. Somewhat famously, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer met as students at Harvard University. Gates dropped out. Ballmer, who eventually succeeded him as CEO of Microsoft, graduated magna cum laude.

(An amusing coda: Ballmer dropped out of the Stanford Graduate School of Business to begin his career at Microsoft.)

We asked Salary Survey respondents to identify the highest level of formal education they’ve completed. The breakdown, with U.S. respondents separated from those chiming in from other nations, is as follows:

United States — What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
Bachelor’s degree: 39.3 percent
Master’s degree: 33.4 percent
Two-year college degree: 10 percent
Technical training (no college degree): 8.1 percent
High school diploma: 3.8 percent
Doctorate: 2.6 percent
Currently in school: 1.9 percent
Professional degree (such as for law or medicine): 0.7 percent
No formal education prior to entering the workforce: 0.2 percent

All Non-U.S. Countries — What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
Bachelor’s degree: 41.3 percent
Master’s degree: 37.6 percent
Technical training (no college degree): 6.1 percent
High school diploma: 5.3 percent
Two-year college degree: 4 percent
Professional degree (such as for law or medicine): 3.4 percent
Doctorate: 1.6 percent
No formal education prior to entering the workforce: 0.6 percent
Currently in school: 0.1 percent

We’ve chosen not to consider the salary data from groups smaller than two percent of their respective survey populations. That leaves us with the following:

AVERAGE ANNUAL SALARY INDEXED BY HIGHEST LEVEL OF FORMAL EDUCATION

UNITED STATESALL OTHER COUNTRIES
Highest Level of EducationSalaryHighest Level of EducationSalary
Doctorate$126,948Professional degree$73,330
Master’s degree$129,600Master’s degree$75,120
Bachelor’s degree$119,230Bachelor’s degree$67,300
Two-year college degree$102,000Two-year college degree$74,590
Technical training$109,960Technical training$83,430
High school diploma$119,610High school diploma$68,780
Insufficient data: Currently in school, professional degree, no formal education prior to entering the workforceInsufficient data: Doctorate, currently in school, no formal education prior to entering the workforce

2020 Salary Data

It would seem clear that you don’t have to attend a college or university to make your way in the IT realm. The sample size is small, but U.S. IT workers whose furthest foray into higher education was either completing high school or completing technical training (typically one or more certifications) are doing just fine for themselves.

Perhaps it bears repeating that the sample size is small. The survey compiled data from more than 4,000 certified IT professionals, and only 3.8 percent of all U.S. participants took the “high school diploma only” route. More than 85 percent got some kind of college degree, and more than 75 percent devoted four or more years to achieving that degree.

Outside the United States, the best educational value available, at least in terms of future earning potential, would appear to be post-high school technical training. And though more than 80 percent of non-U.S. IT workers who participated in the survey have either a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctorate, or professional degree, there’s no clear indication that those pristine academic credentials provide assurance of earning power.

In the United States, on the other hand, it seems clear that advanced degrees do lead to substantially higher incomes. While the average annual salary of a U.S. bachelor’s degree holder is only marginally more impressive than that claimed by the admittedly much smaller class of high school-only survey respondents, holding a master’s degree or doctorate is a status clearly preferred (and compensated accordingly) by U.S. employers.

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CertMag Staff

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Certification Magazine was launched in 1999 and remained in print until mid-2008. Publication was restarted on a quarterly basis in February 2014. Subscribe to CertMag here.

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