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 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 counter balance to below-average pay, and just 4% said they'd take stock options in lieu of a bigger paycheck.

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

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.

Average Salary for College Graduates

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that the average starting salary for the Class of 2018 stood at $50,944; and while this salary is trending in a favorable direction, it's less than 1% higher than the final average salary for the Class of 2017 which was $50,516.

As they're still finalizing data to their 2019 survey, the NACE projects that those with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees will continue to earn the highest starting salaries.

At $69,188, the average starting salary projection for Class of 2019 engineering graduates is 4% higher than last year’s salary projection. Among the individual engineering disciplines, petroleum engineering majors have the highest salary projection, which—at $84,160—soars high above the overall average for STEM degrees. 

Based on data analyzed by NACE, the average salaries by Bachelor's Degree are:

  • Engineering: $69,188
  • Computer Science: $60,177
  • Math and Sciences: $62,177
  • Business: $57,657
  • Social Sciences: $57,310
  • Humanities: $56,651
  • Agriculture and National Resources: $55,750
  • Communications: $52,056

Highest-Paying Bachelor's Degree Majors

As you might expect, specialization is the most significant differentiator when it comes to salaries within a first job after graduation. Below are the highest paying majors for each of the following Bachelor's Degrees:

  • Agricultural and Natural Resources
    • Plant Science: $57,667
    • Conservation/Natural Resource Management: $57,667
    • Food Science: $57,167
  • Business
    • Actuarial Science: $63,820
    • Management Information Systems: $61,697
    • Economics: $59,480
  • Communications
    • Advertising: $52,909
    • Journalism: $52,333
    • Public Relations: $51,929
  • Computer Sciences
    • Computer Science: $68,103
    • Software Application: $67,691
    • Information Sciences and Systems: $66,705
  • Engineering
    • Chemical Engineering: $72,889
    • Electrical Engineering: $70,635
    • Mechanical Engineering: $70,329
  • Humanities
    • Area and Gender Studies: $57,400
    • Foreign Language and Literature: $57,400
    • Philosophy: $57,400
  • Social Sciences
    • Economics: $58,565
    • Political Science/International Relations: $57,200
    • Psychology: $57,000
  • Mathematics and Science
    • Physics: $66,718
    • Mathematics/Statistics: $62,823
    • Geology/Geological Sciences: $62,250

Early-Career Majors That Pay the Most

PayScale’s 2019-20 College Salary Report notes that choice of major can have an even bigger impact on future earnings than choice of school. The majors with the highest earnings for college alumni early in their career (0—5 years of work experience) are:

  • Petroleum Engineering: $94,500
  • Physician Assistant Studies: $91,100
  • Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: $88,000
  • Pharmacy: $79,600
  • Metallurgical Engineering: $78,100
  • Operations Research: $77,900
  • Computer Science and Physics: $77,300
  • Nuclear Engineering Technology: $76,900
  • Petroleum Land Management: $76,800
  • Welding Engineering: $76,100

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 (0—5 years of work experience) are:

  • Speech and Drama: $28,300
  • Voice and Opera: $32,500
  • Medical Assisting: $32,500
  • Painting and Printmaking: $32,800
  • Rehabilitation Services: $32,800
  • Developmental Psychology: $33,200
  • Child and Family Studies: $33,400
  • Early Childhood Education: $33,500
  • Ministry: $34,000
  • Mental Health Counseling: $34,100

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

In Conclusion:

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.