A few semesters before I completed my humanities degree, I started to panic anytime I tried picturing my post-college life. I had no real idea of what kind of money I could expect to make or how the choices I was making in college would affect my livelihood after graduation.
If you’re a current or future college student, don’t blindly stumble through the first half of college like I did. You should know what you can expect to make at your first job out of college. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be better prepared to make wise choices.
Here’s how to find out what you’ll make after college — and how to use that information to achieve the best outcome.
3 ways you can predict your post-college pay
To figure out how much money you can expect to make after college, you need to know where to look.
Start with the following tools and employment data to explore your post-college options and outcomes. By using these resources, you can paint a clear picture of how much you’re likely to earn out of college.
1. Check out your college’s employment outcomes
One of the best places to start is your own school. Colleges are required to track and report various outcomes of their students, regardless of whether they graduate.
And for good reason — this information helps students vet colleges and find those that lead to higher pay. Well-paid alumni are a sign of career-centered colleges with curricula more likely to turn you into a marketable job candidate.
Use the Department of Education’s College Scorecard tool to compare outcomes at different schools. The College Scorecard lists some key information, including the following:
- Graduation rate: the percentage of students who complete a bachelor’s degree within six years
- Salary after attending: the median earnings of students 10 years after first enrolling (typically six years post-graduation for a bachelor’s degree)
- Percentage earning above high school grad: how many students attending this college earn, on average, more than students with only a high school diploma
In addition to the College Scorecard data, check your college’s website for undergraduate employment reports — like this one from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management:
If the college doesn’t have an employment report published on its site, check with the career services department or the office for your major, which might have such information and usually will provide it upon request.
The PayScale College Salary Report is another helpful tool for finding compensation estimates for your college, including early-career estimates. The midcareer pay projections can be used to explore how college choice could affect your long-term earning potential as well.
2. Compare incomes for workers with your major
It’s not just the college you attend that determines your worth in the job market. What you choose to study could be a stronger determinant of your value as a job candidate — and the pay you can expect to receive.
For instance, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors earn the highest starting salaries out of college. 2017 STEM graduates were projected to earn an average of $66,097, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) salary survey.
That’s $17,364 more than the average starting salary of $48,733 projected for humanities majors, according to that same survey.
Research jobs statistics specific to your major to find out what you can expect to earn. Pay attention to the job titles and paths that will be available to you with your chosen degree.
And if you don’t know where to begin, check out this interactive career tool from the Hamilton Project. It provides salary estimates specific to your age, major, and gender.
Here’s a screenshot of what you can expect to see when you plug in some social work info:
3. Review your career and life plans
The final and most important factor in any income equation is you — specifically, the career and life plans you’d like to undertake.
Consider the following questions:
- What occupation are you aiming for? Crack open the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook. It includes comprehensive employment information, including wages, educational requirements, employment conditions, and job growth.
- What kind of employers do you plan to work for? The same occupation can have widely varying pay depending on the company you work for. An accountant for a nonprofit, for instance, can expect to earn less than an accountant for a Fortune 500 firm.
- Where do you plan to live? Your salary also will depend on where you live. Websites such as Indeed and PayScale can be helpful tools to research typical pay by job title and location.
Refine income estimates by putting them in the context of your life and career plans. For example, a computer science major hoping to work for a big-name company in Silicon Valley will have a higher projected income than a computer science major interested in working for a small, rural nonprofit.
3 decisions you can make with a post-college income estimate
I spent my last few semesters frantically working on-campus jobs, completing practicums, and cobbling together a minor that would hopefully give me some marketable skills.
Even so, I graduated without a job, spent months searching for work, and ended up earning less than the then-average starting salary for college graduates of $48,288.
That’s why it’s important to think ahead and anticipate your future income. Use that information to make the following decisions so you can situate yourself for the best possible outcome.
1. How much should you borrow for college?
If you decide to take out student loans to pay for college, you need to figure out how much you can expect to earn so you can limit your borrowing accordingly. After all, your ability to afford student loan payments after graduation will primarily depend on your income.
A common guideline is to limit total student loans to what you can expect to earn right out of college. For an estimated starting salary of $45,000, you could afford to borrow $45,000.
However, the less you borrow and the more you earn, the better off you’ll be. Use this calculator from FinAid to estimate your total student debt and compare it to your projected income. It also can be helpful to estimate and compare monthly costs with our student loan payment calculator.
2. Where should you to try to find a job after college?
When you’re looking for your first job after graduation, your first consideration might be where you want to work geographically.
Considering local salaries for workers with your educational background and desired occupation can give you more information on the cities and areas on your list.
Research what you might earn in different cities or at different types of companies. Based on that information, you can figure out where you should start sending your resumes and job applications.
3. How to best prepare for your career
Lastly, as you research your desired career and occupation, you’ll probably start to see some trends in what employers are looking for outside a degree.
For example, a recent NACE survey revealed that employers prefer new graduates who also have relevant work experience. Positioning yourself as an ideal hire probably will mean completing an internship or participating in a cooperative education program.
Look for other ways to make yourself stand out. Tap on-campus resources such as career services or professors with real-world experience in your desired field for advice, guidance, and networking.
Overall, the news for today’s college graduates is good. Starting salaries are on the rise, and NACE projected employers would hire 5.8 percent more college graduates in 2017 than they did in 2016. The overall trends point to positive employment outcomes and good pay for most of today’s college students.
However, the most important part of the equation will always be you — your drive, resourcefulness, and ability to make wise decisions. If you choose well now, the life you’re aiming for could be well within your reach.
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