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Earning a PhD in philosophy is certainly a noble pursuit which would equip you with a deep understanding of the insights of Plato and Socrates, but it may not land you a career with the earning potential equal to all the work it took to get there. If you want to get the most bang for your educational bucks, it may pay to look at a wide range of career options – including jobs that require less than a four-year college degree.

The cost of attending a higher education institution has continued to escalate in recent years. As the accompanying table shows, the average cost of attending a public college or university ranges from $9,410 per year for in-state students to $23,893 per year for out-of-state students. The average cost of attending a private institution is $32,405 per year – a total of nearly $130,000 over four years.

On the other hand, if you can launch your career with an associate’s degree, the average cost of a public two-year college for in-district students is just $3,435 per year – about $7,000 for two years. In other words, you could start working and earning two years earlier with a two-year degree while dishing out just a fraction of the cost of a four-year school. 

cost of college table

Highlighted below are recent reports which provide helpful insights on some of the types of careers that are most in demand and the educational requirements needed to qualify for those jobs.

Four-year degrees

For an excellent chance of landing a well-paying job when you graduate from college with a four-year degree, think engineering. Pay Scale, a company that provides salary ranges and related data for businesses, lists petroleum engineering as the most lucrative profession for four-year graduates.2

In fact, engineering-related careers dominate the top tier of the PayScale.com list. Thirteen of the top 15 careers are from the engineering field, including petroleum engineering (which pays, on average, $101,000 to start and $168,000 mid-career), nuclear, chemical, computer, aeronautical, electrical, mechanical, and aerospace engineering.

Other majors that tend to lead to the highest pay range include actuarial mathematics, computer science and mathematics, industrial distribution, and physics. Other jobs that ranked in the top quartile of the list (which included a total of 319 careers) include such majors as mathematics, economics, finance, government, cognitive science, accounting, marketing, and management, which range in annual salary from about $45,000 to about $100,000.

The bottom of the list is dominated by educational and services careers, such as early childhood development, teaching, athletic training, social service, ministry, and food services management, which range in average annual salary from about $30,000 to $55,000. 

Two-year degrees

Not surprisingly, average salaries for those with two-year degrees tend to be lower than the average salaries for those with a bachelor’s degree. But there are plenty of exceptions in which the two-year graduates would out-earn certain four-year grads.

For instance, health care related workers, such as dental hygienists, registered nurses, therapists, and medical equipment technicians, can earn in the range of $40,000 to $90,000 per year, according to the website “Trade Schools, Colleges and Universities.”3 The site lists 27 careers that can be attained with a two-year degree.

Other relatively well-paying careers on the Pay Scale list for two-year grads include electrician, plumber, commercial driver, paralegal, police officer, computer programmer, mechanic, and technicians, which typically pay in the range of $50,000 to $80,000 a year.

Greatest Demand

A recent U.S. Department of Labor report noted that there were about 5.9 million job openings in the U.S. as of July 31, 2016.4 According to the report, employers have been actively recruiting for those openings, but have been unable to find qualified workers to fill the jobs.

The largest areas of demand include business and professional services (1.2 million openings), health care and social assistance (962,000 openings), leisure and hospitality (763,000 openings), and retail trade (627,000 openings), according to the report.

The Labor Department also published an online “Occupational Outlook Handbook5” in December 2015 that provided details on hundreds of professions, along with a range of information on median wages, educational requirements and level of demand for each career from U.S. employers.

Some of the careers with the fastest growing demand include physical therapists, operational research analysts, physician assistants, personal finance advisors, and nurse practitioners.

Although some of the jobs with the fastest growing demand require higher degrees – such as optometrists and research analysts – many would require less than a four-year degree. However, high demand doesn’t always translate into higher pay. For instance, one of the fastest growing job niches is paramedics and emergency medical technicians, which requires special training and certification, but not a degree. Although there’s a growing need for these first responders, the pay range is only $25,000 to $35,000 a year.

On the other hand, some higher paying jobs may not be a good bet for post-secondary students because of sinking demand. For instance, computer programmers – once among the hottest career options – has seen a decline in demand because companies are now outsourcing programming to India and other countries with lower wages.

Some of the other notable careers that are seeing a decline in demand include desktop publishers, electrical technicians, manufacturing and assembly workers, political scientists, purchasing agents, journalists, and tax examiners.

But many careers have an increasing demand. The tables below feature a few of the more popular career opportunities based on educational level, salary and demand. The job growth and salary information comes from the U.S. Department of Labor “Occupational Outlook Handbook.”

You may also find helpful our Thrivent Mutual Funds “100 Best Careers in America” Special Report, which includes job growth projections, educational requirements and salary information on 100 of America’s best career opportunities.

best four year degree career opportunities
best advanced degree career opportunities
best 2 year degree or less career opportunities

Regardless of what career path you choose, the reality is that in order to invest in your education you need to start investing for your education—and the sooner the better.  Thrivent Mutual Funds offers education savings options that you can open with as little as $50 per month.  Visit the Kids Accounts section to learn more about our Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, Uniform Transfer to Minors Act Accounts, and more.  Another option is to start investing in a Roth IRA which not only could be used for retirement savings, but also offers tax-free withdrawals for qualified education expenses.

See the full Thrivent Mutual Funds “100 Best Careers in America” Special Report.

1 College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

2 Payscale.com. College Salary Report 2016-2017

3 Trade-schools.net, 27 Highest-Paying Jobs That You Can Train for in 2 Years or Less

4 “Job Openings and Labor Turnover – July 2016,” U.S. Department of Labor 

5 U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook

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