Recent alumni of colleges and graduate schools—a segment of the U.S. population that is supposedly shipwrecked, rather than effectively weathering a tough economic storm—are taking home large paychecks. At least that's the implication of the September 2012 Salary Survey, released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
The undergraduate class of 2012 earned an average starting salary of $44,259—a 1.7 percent increase above the average commanded last year by the class of 2011, $43,521. That's according to data from 400,000 employers analyzed by NACE, a nonprofit in Bethlehem, Pa., in July. The study, which examines starting salaries rather than initial job offers in 90 undergraduate disciplines and 20 graduate areas, found that recent graduate alumni received "significantly higher starting salaries than their counterparts who hold bachelor's degrees," according to a NACE release.
Average starting salaries of graduate alumni in the areas of elementary education, computer science, and political science were $48,900, $80,400, and $57,700, respectively, compared to $37,600, $62,000, and $40,400, respectively, for bachelor's degree holders in those fields. The gap in starting salaries in political science was the highest, according to the study, with grad alumni earning nearly 43 percent more than college grads.
While it makes sense that graduate degrees ought to yield higher salaries, experts caution applicants and students to approach the NACE results with a good deal of skepticism.
"These sorts of surveys may be technically correct, but they are often based on a very small slice of the real universe—those graduates who have received and accepted offers," says Roy Cohen, a career counselor and executive coach in New York.
[Read about whether you need an advanced degree to get a great job.]
Not only would the survey findings be different if NACE took part-time jobs—which come with lower salaries—into account, but salaries for alumni of professionally oriented master's programs, such as accounting, finance, and law, which are included in the data, may also skew the averages artificially high, according to Cohen.
"Graduates of these programs will always be paid more for two simple reasons: They often enter the program with significant and relevant work experience, and the industries represented tend to pay higher salaries," he says.
Mimi Collins, a spokeswoman for NACE, declined to make a copy of the full study available. And Andrea Koncz, NACE's employment information manager, clarified that the study, which is "simply a compilation of several sources of government data, based upon an approximate number of employers who report data to the government," doesn't feature 400,000 individual responses to survey questions. The survey only includes base salaries from full-time employment, Koncz adds.
"Since we don't have an exact number of raw data points, there is no way to tell what percentage of the 2012 graduating class this represents," she says. "The total projected number of students who graduated in 2012 is about 1.6 million, but there is no way to report exactly how many or the percentage the report covers."
[Learn more about paying for grad school.]
Without having that data, it's hard to draw conclusions, says Robert Reich, a former U.S. secretary of labor who is currently a public policy professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California—Berkeley. Still, the numbers look "reliable," he says.
"I'm struck by how little the increase has been between 2011 and 2012," he adds. "Adjusted for inflation, [it's an] almost zero increase."
But others more readily drew conclusions from the NACE survey. "Maybe staying at Troy University after [graduating] isn't such a bad idea! Master's degree means higher salary payoff," Tweeted the career services office at Troy University in Troy, Ala.
Sam Smith, a first year student at the Law Center at Georgetown University, says as a full-time student, he is not aware of salary trends for graduate alumni. But grad school is a large investment in terms of time, money, and lost wages, so he's excited to see that the NACE study indicates that the investment pays off.
"The skills gained in graduate programs often provide for a more critical professional outlook, and in my experience, the career services support that I have found in graduate school has been much more accessible and forthcoming about opportunities and the job market than those I found in undergrad," he says.
[Find out where to search for grad school loan forgiveness.]
The NACE average salary numbers also sound accurate to Lauren Hudgins, a second-year M.F.A. student at Portland State University. But Hudgins, who graduated from college in 2006 and has never earned more than $25,000 per year, questions the degree to which the study takes into account the "months many graduates spent unemployed."
"I would be curious to see the medians and means including people who are employed part time, because they cannot find full-time work," she says.
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