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What is the Value of a Degree?

Nearly everyone agrees that a college education is a good investment. Although students often take out loans to pay for college, the degrees they earn (assuming they finish their degrees) place them in a much higher earnings category, statistically speaking, and these higher earnings can be used to pay off college debt. However, not all college degrees are created equal. A Bachelor of Arts in History, for example, is not likely to place a new graduate in the six-figure earnings echelon. A specialized technical degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in Petroleum Engineering, could land grads jobs at or around $100,000 per year.

The Highest Earning Majors

Which undergraduate degrees are the most valuable? This is a difficult question to answer, because the value of a degree can be measured in different ways. One common way to measure it is in terms of the starting salary for graduates with different degrees. On this scale, petroleum engineering often comes out on top, but industrial engineering and software engineering graduates earn over $50,000 per year right out of college, making these degrees quite lucrative as well.

Balancing Working Conditions With Salary

Although some bachelor's degrees lead to higher paying jobs right out of college, the nature of the jobs should not be overlooked when determining the value of a degree. For example, petroleum engineering may come with a high salary, but it is also a very demanding job. Petroleum engineers often work long hours and are required to spend large amounts of time around industrial petroleum equipment. Compare these conditions to those encountered by the average software engineer. Software engineers often work in comfortable office buildings located in nice business parks. Their schedule are typically much more flexible than those of petroleum engineers, and the work environment is generally much better. Taking these factors into consideration over the span of an entire career, software engineering begins to look more valuable than petroleum engineering.

Which Universities' Degrees are Most Valuable?

The university a degree comes from is also important to determining that degree's value. For example, a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is more expensive than a degree from a small, rural, public college. At first glance, it might seem that the increased cost-and, therefore, the increased debt burden that graduates will face - results in a decrease in the overall value of the degree. The calculation is not quite that simple, though. MIT is a much more prestigious school than a small, rural, public college, so MIT graduates have an edge when it comes to getting the highest paying jobs when they graduate. A higher paying job will make it easier to cope with loan debt, and will result in a higher return on the student's investment over the long term.

Overpriced Colleges

Beware of falling into the trap of thinking that a higher price tag necessarily indicates a higher value when it comes to colleges and universities. It may be true in the case of schools like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT that the high cost of tuition could be worth it in the end, but this is not so for every high-priced school. For example, there are many private colleges and universities that charge $40,000 per year or more but that do not help graduates get better jobs. Unfortunately, many of these schools are private liberal arts colleges, which often espouse lofty educational ideals and attract students with their commitment to creativity. The sad truth is that the society we live in does not value lofty educational ideals quite as highly as graduates of private liberal arts colleges would like.

When trying to assess the value of an undergraduate degree from a U.S. college or university, there are many factors to take into account. Ultimately, however, no list or equation can rank degrees. A student's personal circumstances have a role to play, so each individual must decide for him - or herself what to study.