Average College Graduate Salaries: Expectations vs. Reality

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If you’re a soon-to-be or recent college graduate, you’ve probably wondered how much your degree is worth in terms of future income. Most college students place a high priority on salary and benefits as they anticipate employment, and with good reason; more than half of recent graduates have large debts (plus interest) to pay back.

What Do Graduates Want?

According to a 2019 survey of 2,000 undergraduates by CollegePulse, more than half (56%) of students said that a high-quality health plan was the best perk a company could offer to offset a lower-than-expected salary. Almost a quarter (24%) said that extra paid vacation time was a worthwhile counterbalance to below-average pay, and just 4% said they'd take stock options in lieu of a bigger paycheck.

The same survey revealed that a majority (58%) of the polled students would choose a $60,000 annual salary with no stock options over a $50,000 annual salary with stock options. Male students were split evenly, while 63% of female students said they would take the higher salary.

Surveyed students largely viewed stock options as a gamble compared with health benefits, a positive work/life balance, and a fair salary.

Average Salary for College Graduates

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the average starting salary for the Class of 2021 stood at $55,260, the highest so far on record.

The NACE projects that those with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees will continue to earn the highest starting salaries. At $72,173, the average starting salary projection for Class of 2021 computer science majors is more than 7% higher than the previous year's salary projection.

Based on data analyzed by NACE, the average salaries by bachelor's degree are:

  • Computer science $72,173
  • Engineering: $71,088
  • Math and sciences: $63,316
  • Social sciences: $59,919
  • Humanities: $59,500
  • Business: $58,869
  • Communications: $58,174
  • Agriculture and national resources: $54,857

Early Career Majors That Pay the Most

PayScale’s 2021 College Salary Report notes that choice of major can have an even bigger impact on future earnings than the choice of school. The majors with the highest earnings for college alumni early in their career (less than five years of work experience) are:

  • Electrical engineering and computer science: $108,500
  • Petroleum engineering: $93,200
  • Operations research and industrial engineering: $84,800
  • Operations research: $83,500
  • Marine engineering: $79.900
  • Computer science and engineering: $79,400
  • Electrical and computer engineering: $78,100
  • Systems engineering: $77,700
  • Aeronautics and astronautics: $77,600
  • Chemical engineering: $76,900

Early Career Majors That Pay the Least

According to the same report, the majors with the lowest-earning for college alumni early in their career (less than five years of work experience) are:

  • Metalsmithing: $40,000
  • Rehabilitation services: $39,300
  • Early childhood & elementary education: $38,000
  • Addiction studies: 38,000
  • Outdoor education: $37,400
  • Mental health counseling: $36,900
  • Child and family studies: $36,400
  • Early childhood education: $36,100
  • Medical assisting: $36,000
  • Equine studies: $35,700

Whatever your field of study, having a college degree automatically increases your chances of earning more. The average salary for someone with a four-year degree is more than double that of someone who didn’t graduate from high school. One exception is with trade schools; plumbers, electricians, and other trade specialists earn generous hourly wages after completion of their apprenticeship.

Get Salary Information

It’s important to know what you’re worth, whether you're searching for your first job or you have years of experience. The more information you have, the easier it will be to negotiate your salary with potential employers.

There are free online salary calculators you can use to get estimates, and PayScale offers a free personalized salary report. You can also use a paycheck calculator to estimate your take-home pay. Consult your college’s career office and alumni in your field to gain a better perspective on what's to come.

Consider Your Compensation Package

If you have work or internship experience to complement a skill set that employers are seeking in college grads, you may be able to boost your total compensation through driving a hard bargain during your job search.

The more you do in college to prepare for the workplace, the higher your paycheck will be. Be sure to include everything applicable on your resume, so the hiring manager can see how well-qualified you are.

In addition, remember that money isn’t everything, even though it can easily seem like the most important variable when you have student loans that are collecting interest. Total compensation accounts for more than what you see on your paycheck, including stock options, retirement planning, and other employer-provided benefits and perks.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, below are some common items to look for in a total compensation statement:

  • Salary/hourly rate
  • Medical benefits coverage—include the amount paid by employee and employer
  • Flexible spending account information
  • Paid leave—include vacation, sick leave, paid time off, holiday pay, bereavement, military pay, and jury duty
  • Disability insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Employee assistance program
  • Retirement benefits—include 401(k)/403(b) and pension plans
  • Educational assistance programs
  • Relocation expenses
  • Learning and development offerings
  • Career-advancement opportunities

The Bottom Line

To make a critical decision when evaluating offers for your first job after college, it’s also important to consider factors like potential for personal advancement within the company, your general excitement about the day-to-day job responsibilities, and the overall work/life balance that employees enjoy. While interviewing, be sure to note how long each of your potential coworkers has been with the company, and ask them about their own motivations for joining (and staying with) the team.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the average salary for someone without a college diploma?

Those who don't complete college make $21,000 per year less than their graduating peers, on average.

Why would a student care about the average salary for college graduates?

There are many ways incoming college students can use average salary data. It can help you calculate the likelihood of being able to quickly repay student loans, for example. It can also help you plan for your lifestyle in adulthood and whether your ideal career will support that lifestyle.

How can college graduates negotiate their starting salary?

Researching average salaries for your career and education level is a great starting point for your negotiations. From there, look to highlight any special skills or talents you bring to the table that may make up for your lack of on-the-job experience. Speak confidently, and don't be afraid to ask for a higher figure—the worst they can do is say no.

Article Sources

  1. College Pulse. "College Students Want High-Quality Health Care Over Stock Options in Job Offers." Accessed Oct. 2, 2021.

  2. The National Association of Colleges and Employers. "Final Starting Salaries for Class of 2021 New College Graduates." Accessed Oct. 2, 2021.

  3. PayScale. "Highest Paying Jobs With a Bachelor’s Degree." Accessed Oct. 2, 2021.

  4. SHRM. "What Should Be Included in a Total Compensation Statement?" Accessed Oct. 2, 2021.

  5. College Atlas. "U.S. College Dropout Rate and Dropout Statistics." Accessed Oct. 2, 2021.