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College Costs More Than Ever, But Can You Afford To Skip It? Consider These 5 Things

Chris Neal
Kansas News Service
Washburn University students attend a lecture.

Life is expensive. Rent, health care, raising a family, saving for retirement — it adds up. But so does college debt. In fact, the cost of college shot up many times faster than typical U.S. earnings in recent decades.

So, what to do after high school? Here’s what you need to know.

College is your best bet for higher earnings long-term.

Only three in 10 people who stop at a high school diploma will manage to land what Georgetown University researchers term “good jobs” — jobs that will earn you at least $35,000 in your mid-20s through early 40s, and at least $45,000 after middle age.

And the bulk of those “good jobs” for people with a high school diploma alone go to men.

“If you’re a young woman,” says Georgetown economist Nicole Smith, “there are very, very few opportunities for you.”

On the whole, bachelor’s degrees bring home bigger paychecks than two-year programs. Take a peek:

Not all four-year degrees offer clear-cut paths to great paychecks.

In today’s era of college debt, it’s worth knowing not just what you’ll pay for college, but what you’ll earn. Nearly a third of U.S. adults have bachelor’s degrees nowadays. That means the letters “B.A.” or “B.S.” on your resume don’t carry the same weight they did back when those distinctions were rare.

Georgetown’s interactive college majors tool shows you incomes nationally or by state. The average arts major in Kansas earns $42,000. A bachelor’s in psychology, social work or education will earn you about the same. Majors like health, communications and biology land in the $50,000 range. Math, computers, architecture and engineering reach the $80,000 range.

The cost of your degree can vary a lot — even at public, in-state universities.

Use Kansas DegreeStats to compare costs and outcomes of specific degrees at in-state public two and four-year colleges. A quick search for aerospace engineering, for example, indicates that degree costs $20,000 more at the University of Kansas than Wichita State. Yet a degree from either school will set you up for the same sort of pay five years after graduation. It also reveals how much students tend to receive in scholarships and other helpful information.

To save on a four-year degree, you could start at a community college then transfer. But be sure to check which credits will transfer, so you don’t end up losing time and money.

Consider community and technical colleges for a faster, cheaper path that sometimes comes with a bigger payoff than four-year education.

Among the hundreds of degrees available at public two and four-year colleges in Kansas, the one that pays the best five years after graduation is an associate’s degree, not a bachelor’s: this electrical lineman program.

Credit Chris Neal
A Washburn Tech electrical student connects wires to a switchboard.

Nationally, Georgetown says two-year grads with science, technology, engineering — or STEM — degrees earn an average of $60,000 and those with two-year health degrees earn $52,000. Even some shorter credentials in STEM, for example, can pay better than many bachelor’s degrees.

This is Part Two in our series on college and careers. Here are the rest: Part One on the advent of the college economy, Part Three on Kansas' tech college boom, Part Four on free dual credit classes for high schoolers, Part Five on state investment in engineering education, Part Six on college major tips, Part Seven on "degree inflation," Part Eight on the lack of access to four-year college in southwest Kansas, and Part Nine on transferring from community college to university.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org. This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association reporting fellowship program.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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