Executive Education

Is the Cost of Education Worth the Investment? It Depends on What You Study


Popular media outlets have recently published stories questioning if a university education is a wise investment. Tuition costs increase year over year, and many students graduate with significant debt. Not only that, but students have limited earning potential during the course of their study because of their academic schedule. It’s tough to show up to work and Econ 101 simultaneously.

So does it make financial sense to enroll in a university program?

There’s no simple answer here. It depends on your circumstances, area of study, and the degree you’re seeking. 

The Rising Cost of Higher Education

Today’s academic environment is very different compared to how it was 30 or even 20 years ago. Students now have greater scheduling flexibility and accessibility. Online programs create opportunities for students outside traditional classrooms, for example. Public transportation and student housing allow people to travel to and from class without a car. Students can even target schools that offer specialized services, such as corporate partnerships and work-study programs.

But all these advantages come with a disproportionately higher cost. In the first quarter of 2018, student loans nationwide surpassed $1.5 trillion; in 2008, this number was just $600 billion. Economists predict the upward trend will likely continue, with some projections as high as $3 trillion or more by the end of 2021. This growth presents problems not just for individual borrowers but the economy overall.

Salary Earnings by Degree

Bachelor’s Degrees

There are massive differences in the income potential between college degrees, however. 

For example, a bachelor’s biology degree earned graduates an average income of $30,500 from Brown University, according to data from The Wall Street Journal (2019). But a history major from the same university received an average salary of $42,900 following graduation.

By comparison, the average starting salary for business majors post-graduation exceeds $50,390, according to Poets&Quants (2018). For graduates from the top 10 business schools, they earn as much as 50% more than the average graduate from other majors.

Graduate Degrees

As you might expect, students find more work opportunities and higher earning potential once they reach the postgraduate level. For example, Executive MBA (EMBA) graduates realize an increase from $205,008 to $232,663 annually, which represents 13.5% wage growth

EMBA programs also present a few unique advantages compared to other graduate degrees. Many cohorts receive partial or full funding from their employer, and these programs are designed to fit the schedule of working professionals. Classes are often held on weekends, online, or after standard office hours.

Salary Earnings by College

The Wall Street Journal shows the relative benefit of a college degree also depends on which university a student attends. 


For example, on average, a computer science student from DeVry University will finish the program with about $53,391 in debt. Their first-year income is usually around $37,800. 

In contrast, a computer science graduate from Wichita State University in Kansas will usually land a starting salary of around $61,800 with about $31,000 of debt.

The Wall Street Journal found that across all degrees, MIT graduates experience the lowest debt-to-income ratio. 

Which EMBA programs offer the best opportunities for career advancement post-graduation?

Is the ROI of a College Degree Worth the Investment?

Yes, tuition rates continue to increase. And yes, higher tuition translates into higher student loan debt for graduates.

But a university degree continues to be a key determinant for earning potential and employment opportunities.

On average, a university graduate earns $900,000 more than a high school graduate throughout their career. Not only do university graduates make more, but they’re also less likely to find themselves looking for work. In November 2018, the unemployment rate for high school graduates in the U.S. was 3.5%. But for college graduates, only 2.2% were actively looking for work.

There’s also a societal shift toward degree inflation. More jobs require a college education than in previous decades—so the opportunities that are available for someone without an advanced degree are gradually disappearing. 

This correlation has further implications: a bachelor’s degree isn’t a key differentiator for top job candidates anymore. At the highest organization level, employers increasingly look for candidates who hold an advanced degree in business administration or a related field. 

Find out how to boost your earning potential in a year or less.


About the Author

James Young is a writer, professor, and founder of Pro English Writers. He actively promotes equality, poverty reduction, and access to education through various programs and charities. Based in Southeast Asia, James holds an MBA and teaches international trade and economics courses at a top-ranked university in South Korea.