10 States Where a Graduate Degree Boosts Your Pay by $17,000 (or More)

graduate degrees that pay off

Deciding whether grad school is worth it isn’t always easy, especially since graduate programs typically carry higher tuition costs than undergraduate degrees.

But according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent American Community Survey, at the national level, the median salary for workers who attained a professional degree, graduate degree, or higher (such as a Ph.D., MD, or MBA) was $69,240 (inflation-adjusted to 2017 dollars). That’s 32.14 percent more than those who earned just a bachelor’s degree.

However, finding graduate degrees that pay off also can depend on where you live. A new Student Loan Hero study revealed the top 10 states where a graduate degree resulted in the biggest pay bumps.

If you’re thinking of going back to school to earn an additional degree, check to see if your state is on this list.

10 states where you can find graduate degrees that pay off

In all states, earning a graduate degree raised pay by at least 21 percent.

Plus, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who earned a graduate degree also faced lower unemployment rates and higher job growth compared to those with just a bachelor’s degree.

In the following study, Student Loan Hero ranked every state and the District of Columbia by the difference in pay between workers with a bachelor’s degree and those with a graduate degree to determine graduate degrees that pay off. We considered the raise amount both in real dollars and as a percentage pay increase.

1. California

  • Median graduate degree salary: $82,299
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $24,293
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 41.88 percent

California earned the top spot by offering significantly higher pay to its workers with a graduate degree compared to those with a bachelor’s degree.

It also had the highest pay jump in dollars. The median salary for a four-year college graduate in California was $58,006. For a California resident with a graduate degree, it was $82,299.

Additionally, it was one of four states where a graduate degree netted a pay bump of more than 40 percent. That means you can find graduate degrees that pay off here.

Given California’s high cost of living (among the highest in the nation), netting a pay increase could be essential for California residents looking to get ahead financially.

2. Virginia

  • Median graduate degree salary: $81,401
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $23,914
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 41.60 percent

Virginia was one of six states where people with a graduate degree earned median wages above $80,000 a year. When that’s compared to the $57,487 median pay netted by Virginians holding a bachelor’s degree, there is a clear substantial financial benefit to continuing education.

3. Utah

  • Median graduate degree salary: $67,575
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $20,923
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 44.85 percent

Utah offered the biggest pay raise by percentage for individuals earning a graduate degree.

What’s more, Utah also offered some of the lowest tuition prices and student debt levels for residents earning a bachelor’s degree. That likely translated to savings and low debt levels for Utah residents seeking a graduate degree.

4. District of Columbia

  • Median degree salary: $88,431
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $23,945
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 37.13 percent

The District of Columbia’s median graduate degree salary was the highest of any state, which likely was a reflection of D.C.’s unique geographic and economic landscape.

Only Washington, D.C., and one other state offered median pay above $85,000 per year to workers with a graduate degree.

Washington, D.C., also boasted the second-highest dollar-for-dollar pay bump for those who earned a graduate degree.

5. Idaho

  • Median graduate degree salary: $60,922
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $18,623
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 44.03 percent

Idaho came in at No. 2 for the highest pay raise by percentage. Residents who earned a graduate degree boosted their earnings by 44.03 percent. That’s despite delivering the lowest pay for graduate degree holders among the 10 top-ranked states.

For Idaho residents with a high school diploma, earning a bachelor’s degree boosted earnings by $16,263 to $42,299 a year. However, a graduate degree came with an even bigger raise of more than $18,600 a year.

6. New Jersey

  • Median graduate degree salary: $85,789
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $22,483
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 35.51 percent

New Jersey workers who earned a graduate degree commanded some of the highest pay in the nation, with median salaries second only to those in Washington, D.C.

The median salary for New Jersey residents with a graduate degree was a third higher than the $63,307 median salary for workers with a bachelor’s degree.

7. Maryland

  • Median graduate degree salary: $84,003
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $21,567
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 34.54 percent

After Washington, D.C., and New Jersey, Maryland had the third-highest median pay for workers with a graduate degree.

Graduate degrees offered a pay raise of more than a third from the $63,436 median pay for Maryland residents who held just a bachelor’s degree.

8. Michigan

  • Median graduate degree salary: $69,099
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $18,744
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 37.22 percent

Earning a graduate degree led to decent returns for Michigan residents. The median pay for people with at least a graduate degree was 37.22 percent higher than the median pay for bachelor’s degree holders, which was $50,355.

Add in the state’s low cost of living (third-lowest in the nation, according to GOBankingRates), and these factors made Michigan a state where graduate degree holders got the most out of an additional diploma.

9. North Dakota

  • Median graduate degree salary: $62,675
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $17,568
  • Typical pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 38.95 percent

North Dakota’s workers with a graduate degree earned more than $62,500 a year — the lowest salary among the top 10 states after Idaho.

However, this salary represented a relatively large pay jump for North Dakota residents who chose to continue their education past a bachelor’s degree, boosting pay by nearly two-fifths.

10. Alaska

  • Median graduate degree salary: $73,871
  • Undergraduate versus graduate degree pay difference: $19,221
  • Typical pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 35.17 percent

The last state in the top 10 was Alaska, where holding a graduate degree resulted in a pay raise of just over $19,000.

The median graduate degree salary raise represented a significant increase compared to the $54,650 median annual salary for workers holding a bachelor’s degree.

Methodology: Student Loan Hero generated these rankings based on the following factors: (1) the pay difference, in dollars, between the median salary for workers with a graduate or professional degree and those with a bachelor’s degree and (2) the pay difference expressed as a percentage pay raise between those two levels of educational attainment.

These factors were equally weighted to find the states where a graduate degree resulted in the highest pay bumps in both real dollars and relative pay raises. Pay data was sourced from the Census Bureau’s 2011-2015 American Community Survey and represented median annual salary estimates by educational attainment. Wage estimates were adjusted for inflation to 2017 dollars, per Consumer Price Index estimates.

Rank State Bachelor’s degree salary Graduate degree salary Dollar pay increase Percentage pay raise
National – U.S. $52,398 $69,240 $16,842 32.14%
1 California $58,006 $82,299 $24,293 41.88%
2 Virginia $57,487 $81,401 $23,914 41.60%
3 Utah $46,651 $67,575 $20,923 44.85%
4 District of Columbia $64,486 $88,431 $23,945 37.13%
5 Idaho $42,299 $60,922 $18,623 44.03%
6 New Jersey $63,307 $85,789 $22,483 35.51%
7 Maryland $62,436 $84,003 $21,567 34.54%
8 Michigan $50,355 $69,099 $18,744 37.22%
9 North Dakota $45,107 $62,675 $17,568 38.95%
10 Alaska $54,650 $73,871 $19,221 35.17%
11 Rhode Island $53,614 $72,351 $18,737 34.95%
12 Oregon $45,001 $61,930 $16,930 37.62%
13 Illinois $53,936 $71,832 $17,896 33.18%
14 Nevada $47,474 $64,170 $16,697 35.17%
15 Florida $44,917 $60,823 $15,906 35.41%
16 New York $56,146 $73,958 $17,812 31.72%
17 Pennsylvania $51,958 $68,937 $16,979 32.68%
18 Connecticut $62,489 $80,569 $18,080 28.93%
19 Hawaii $48,251 $63,909 $15,659 32.45%
20 Wyoming $47,141 $62,453 $15,312 32.48%
21 Montana $39,647 $53,392 $13,745 34.67%
22 Indiana $47,258 $62,415 $15,157 32.07%
23 Minnesota $53,158 $69,240 $16,081 30.25%
24 Massachusetts $59,062 $75,928 $16,866 28.56%
25 Washington $55,720 $72,012 $16,293 29.24%
26 Vermont $42,574 $56,625 $14,051 33.00%
27 Texas $53,544 $69,470 $15,926 29.74%
28 Delaware $52,979 $68,587 $15,608 29.46%
29 Iowa $48,035 $62,688 $14,653 30.51%
30 Nebraska $45,832 $59,916 $14,084 30.73%
31 Colorado $50,644 $65,436 $14,792 29.21%
32 North Carolina $46,994 $61,133 $14,139 30.09%
33 Wisconsin $49,026 $63,433 $14,407 29.39%
34 New Mexico $44,799 $58,423 $13,624 30.41%
35 Ohio $51,037 $65,433 $14,395 28.21%
36 New Hampshire $53,612 $68,266 $14,654 27.33%
37 Arkansas $45,673 $58,702 $13,029 28.53%
38 Maine $43,095 $55,404 $12,309 28.56%
39 West Virginia $43,686 $55,893 $12,206 27.94%
40 Tennessee $45,868 $58,372 $12,504 27.26%
41 Missouri $46,067 $58,456 $12,388 26.89%
42 Arizona $49,875 $62,737 $12,862 25.79%
43 Oklahoma $44,255 $56,083 $11,828 26.73%
44 Kansas $47,266 $59,512 $12,246 25.91%
45 South Dakota $41,914 $52,750 $10,836 25.85%
46 Mississippi $42,412 $53,299 $10,888 25.67%
47 Georgia $51,771 $63,557 $11,787 22.77%
48 South Carolina $45,270 $55,732 $10,462 23.11%
49 Kentucky $45,826 $56,159 $10,333 22.55%
50 Alabama $48,089 $58,553 $10,464 21.76%
51 Louisiana $48,794 $59,096 $10,302 21.11%

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