When Susan Lindner wanted to study anthropology at a small liberal arts college, her father's response was: "Anthropology?! That's a road-map to the poor house."
Considering high tuition costs, it's no wonder that Lindner's dad was worried.
A look at the cost side of the equation bears him out. The average tuition for a four-year private university stood at $17,123 for the 2000-2001 academic year, according to the College Board, up from $10,330 for the 1995-1996 academic year. The average student borrows slightly more than $12,000 to finance higher education.
Initial costs aside, however, the payoff seems clear. As of 2000, the median annual earnings of workers with professional degrees were more than 3.5 times those of high school dropouts, finds the latest occupational outlook from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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In fact, an upcoming report on the relative earnings of full-time year-round workers by education level, from the Washington, D.C.-based Employment Policy Foundation, further shows that the more you learn the more you earn.
Although simply completing high school improves earnings outlook, the average high school graduate will earn an estimated average annual income of $30,109 and $1.2 million in a lifetime.
The average college graduate stands to net nearly twice as much, with a $51,097 average annual income adding up over 40 years of earning potential to more than $2.04 million.
Putting Studies to the Test
Lindner herself became a good example of how an education can help the bottom line.
She ended up making a decent salary — $42,000 — working as a field anthropologist in Thailand trying to help women find alternatives to prostitution. And, her compensation rose when she became an AIDS researcher with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
She has since managed to parlay her field experience into a successful career at a New York City public relations firm where she earns approximately triple her starting salary.
"All the skills I learned out there — including trying to persuade married men to use condoms when they are with prostitutes — have helped a lot," she says. "When it really comes down to it, learning how to speak in another person's language is what P.R. people do with their clients."
At a minimum, experts say a bachelor's degree makes sense whether prospective students covet the corner office or just a comfortable life.
"Today a college degree is as essential to a successful career as a high school diploma was years ago," says Jeff Heath, president of New York City-based Landstone Group/MRI, an executive search firm.
Ranking among the most popular, and most profitable undergraduate majors, says Robert Franek, editorial director of test prep firm The Princeton Review in New York, would be any business, technology and health-related course of study — management, accounting, computer science, nursing and biology.
The more liberal arts-based majors, like English, communications and education, are also in high demand, but tend to be harder to quantify, he adds.
Add an MBA, JD or MD into the mix, and an individual's marketability rises.