The problem with rules like these is that students aren't majoring in fortunetelling. How the heck are they supposed to know how much they will earn upon graduation? Luckily, there are several fast and easy ways for students to get reasonably good estimates of what students can expect to earn and afford.
A brand-new Human Capital Score calculator takes less than three minutes and spits out a range of salaries students can expect U.S. News tests found it to be reasonably accurate, though the salary ranges were sometimes uselessly broad. The Human Capital Score predicts that an incoming Michigan State University freshman humanities major with a 3.3 high school grade-point average will earn anywhere from $27,000 to $43,000 after graduating in 2013. It also predicts that the student will earn anywhere from $62,000 to $119,000 10 years after graduating. Liberal arts majors (like me) might want to play it safe and stick with the bottom of the ranges. The minimum annual salary the calculator estimated for my first year out of school, $12,236, was actually $236 too high.
The federal government also has vast databases of earnings statistics. The Census Bureau, for example, says that on average, people with a bachelor's degree who were in their young 20s made almost $26,000 in 2007. But those who worked full time for the whole year earned slightly more than $35,000.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers publishes a starting salary survey each spring. But because the survey is dominated by those with business and technical degrees, the salaries tend to be high. Computer science majors, for example, reported getting offers topping $61,000 a year. And chemical engineers reported starting offers topping $65,000. The full NACE survey isn't free on the Web but is generally available free at college career centers.
There also are several free tools on the Web, such as the ones at Glassdoor.com or this one at usnews.com, that will allow students to check out entry-level or first-year salaries by job title, location, and—in some cases—employer.
Of course, all these tools and rules of thumb assume new graduates will find paying jobs. That's been a challenge for the class of 2009. The NACE says just 20 percent of 2009 graduating seniors had a job in hand on commencement day, half the rate enjoyed by the class of 2007. While new graduates typically get a several-month grace period before their loan bills arrive, many are probably wishing now that they hadn't borrowed a penny.