Does it pay to get a bachelor’s degree?

One year after graduation, students with applied science degrees from the state’s two-year colleges earn nearly $7,000 more than graduates with bachelor’s degrees from four-year colleges and universities, according to a new study and database.

college measures
South High School junior Anesia Broomfield, 16, checks out the newly released College Measures interactive database during a news event Wednesday at South High.

Do you want to make good money right after graduation? Study computer science, engineering, medical fields or business. Want to be broke? Pursue film studies, philosophy or history.

Those are some of the conclusions that can be drawn about the initial value of college degrees from the College Measures database that was unveiled Wednesday during a news conference at Denver’s South High School.

The College Measures tool, which allows users to search by degree or by institution to find first-year earnings, is the product of collaboration between the Colorado Department of Higher Education and College Measures, a for-profit partnership between the American Institutes for Research and Matrix Knowledge Group. A Lumina Foundation grant funded the bulk of the project.

It doesn’t include harder-to-quantify information, such as happiness or job satisfaction.

“The associate’s degree is the hidden gem in American higher education,” College Measures President Mark Schneider said. “Not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree.”

Schneider, while saying a bachelor’s degree doesn’t have a lot of value in the short-term, said he doesn’t “hate” liberal arts.

“I have a liberal arts degree,” Schneider said. “But it’s a serious question about what the value of those are. You may have a lot of life satisfaction, but if you’re living in your mum’s basement and can’t feed yourself, life satisfaction could be hard to come by.”

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, a parent of four – one now in college – said he has spent considerable time as a parent and as a college president counseling thousands of kids and families about the value of a college degree.

“I wished I had a tool like the one we’re making available now,” Garcia said. “As students and families think about increased debt load we need to provide them with the kind of information they need.”

Key findings

  • Colorado graduates working in Colorado can earn, on average, $20,000 more in their early years of employment compared to a high school graduate, who earns an average of $25,000.
  • Graduates with applied science degrees earn about $15,000 more than students who completed the associate of arts degree or associate of sciences degree.
  • The median first-year earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients statewide is around $39,000. However, there is a wide range in earnings according to field of study. First-year earnings range from less than $30,000 for fine and studio arts graduates to more than $50,000 for registered nursing graduates.

Some of the news is not surprising. Higher demand translates into higher salaries. To that end, graduates in health and business earn more than graduates with liberal arts degrees.

But the data shows that not all business degrees, for instance, are created equal.

Take business administration, management and operations. A $20,000 difference is found in the first-year earnings of people who graduated in these fields from the University of Denver (more than $59,000) and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs ($39,000). Although part of that difference is attributable to differences in the local job markets, there is a $16,000 difference in the earnings of graduates from the University of Denver and University of Colorado Denver, both located in the same metropolitan area.

Generally speaking, graduates from the Colorado School of Mines command the highest beginning salaries – about 45 percent higher than the state median.

Graduates of private Regis University also do quite well in the labor market, with median first-year earnings about 38 percent higher than the state median. One reason for this is that Regis graduates generally are older than grads from other campuses in Colorado and have been in the labor market for years.

CU raises questions about the findings

The state’s flagship campus – the University of Colorado at Boulder – doesn’t rank highly in College Measures, with its bachelor’s degree recipients earning less than the state median salary in their first year of work.

The companion report on College Measures notes that CU-Boulder attracts a lot of out-of-state students and that many of its most successful grads may seek employment or graduate degrees in other states.

CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said that there are many caveats about the data. For instance, only 26 percent of CU-Boulder’s graduates with bachelor’s degrees remain in Colorado the first year after graduation. That’s compared to 80 percent of graduates from the Metropolitan State University of Denver, for instance.

Furthermore, a liberal arts degree from a reputable university has value way beyond what a graduate earns their first year out, he said.

“This is a snapshot in time,” McConnellogue said. “It can be useful, but the value of a college degree is measured over a lifetime. … It’s important for people to take the long view. No one measure can give people an accurate view.”

Furthermore, McConnellogue noted that the study was done during the recent economic recession.

Garcia and others involved College Measures said the plan is to include data that will examine earnings over three, five and 10 years to get a more accurate picture of the value of specific degrees from specific institutions.

Helping families make good choices

The point of all this information, of course, is to help students and families make the best decisions when it comes to post-secondary education and the accompanying debt. While there is no guarantee of specific earnings upon graduation, the ranges of first-year earnings listed in the tool can serve as a guide for solid financial planning.

The report cites advice from Mark Kantrowitz, an expert in student financial aid, who says that education debt should be less than expected starting salary after graduation. Even better, student loan debt should be less than 50 percent of starting salary.

The College Measures data includes college graduates from Colorado public colleges and universities and from three private institutions with records in the state’s unemployment insurance wage database, or 61,800 graduates between 2006 and 2010 representing 26 percent of the graduate pool. To be included, graduates must be employed in Colorado and earning at or above the Colorado minimum wage.

The numbers don’t capture any for-profit institutions of higher education. Nor does it include graduates who continued their education after earning a credential, including those enrolling in graduate school or transferring to another college in Colorado and who are full-time students. It also doesn’t include graduates who left the state, who work for the federal government or who were self-employed.

College Measures is also up and running in Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee. Next month, Florida, Texas and Nevada’s websites will come online.

“States have been sitting on a treasure trove of information for a long time,” College Measures President Schneider said. “That’s one thing that has driven me crazy. All these data sit in warehouses. My goal has been to try to create data storefronts, to try to get the information out into the hands of people who could use it to make important decisions.”

Schneider said that most college-bound students and their families have one thing on their mind – good jobs after graduation.

Technical degrees a “hidden gem”

The key finding in the data is the value of associate’s degrees in technical fields.

“Most students say they want a bachelor’s degree,” Schneider said. “But if you can’t do a four-year college degree – you don’t have money or time – a two-year technical degree is something we should respect and honor much more than we do.”

There is some variation in salaries for graduates of different community colleges. For instance, the median wage of graduates from Red Rocks Community College with associate’s general studies degrees is more than $46,000.

That about $6,000 higher than the median wages of graduates from Arapahoe Community College, Pikes Peak Community College and Community College of Aurora.

Jasmine Fox-Suliaman, 16, a junior at South, said the new tool won’t deter her from pursuing her dream of studying fashion journalism and ultimately living and working in New York City.

“It’s important to have tools like this,” she said. “This is a path (that shows) what I have to do in order to survive. It gives me more insight on how I’m going to prepare for the real world. I’m going to have to learn to budget, and not buy the shoes that are my favorites.”

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call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”