Home / Career Advice / Compensation / What Is a Good Salary After College?
Compensation

What Is a Good Salary After College?

Young female recent grade sitting at a desk with a happy expression waving a fan of cash in the air

If you’re a new college graduate or will be one soon, you’ve no doubt got dollar signs on your brain. After four (or more) years of shelling out big bucks for tuition, housing, food, textbooks, and other living expenses, you’re probably anxiously awaiting the day you can cash your first hard-earned paycheck after getting your degree. But there’s one big question: how much will that paycheck be?

Having realistic post-college salary expectations can help you choose which field to pursue. It can also aid in negotiating the best possible compensation when it comes time to apply for jobs. We’ll break down everything you need to know about what a good salary is after college, how much you can expect to earn based on your major, and more. 

Why it’s important to consider your earning potential after college

Having a dream you’re passionate about will keep you going when the going gets tough, as it often can during your collegiate years. Yet your dream alone won’t pay the bills, so it’s important to consider the reality of how much you can expect to make based on your desired path.

Comparing the earning potential for different career paths can help you choose a major and decide which opportunities, like internships, to pursue while you’re in school. It can also help you choose the school since tuition varies greatly between institutions. 

Earning potential can also influence how much debt you want to go into to get your degree. Workers with advanced and specialized degrees can often earn higher salaries, but those degrees can also come at a higher cost. Weighing the price of your education against your likely future salary can help you make an informed decision. 

Finally, salary can have an outsized impact on your quality of life. From being able to afford basic necessities like housing and groceries to being able to splurge on enjoyable extras like travel, your compensation will dictate many of the purchasing decisions you make. If your salary expectations aren’t aligned with reality, it could add a layer of stress to your life. If you’re not earning what you hoped to earn from your job, you may have to delay other goals like starting a family or purchasing a home. 

Going into your post-college job search with your eyes wide open about salaries can help make the first few years of your professional life more enjoyable and less stressful. 

Factors that can influence your salary after college 

Degree

Your degree is the biggest factor in determining how much you make after college, at least in the early years of your career, and the major you choose can make a huge difference. For example, people who majored in engineering commonly earn six figures once they’ve gained some professional experience, but theater majors often earn less than $40,000 a year.

The level of your degree also influences your salary. Generally, the more advanced your degree, the more money you can expect to earn. 

Location

Next up is location. All other factors being equal, college graduates in high-cost-of-living areas like New York and Los Angeles earn more money than those in low-cost-of-living areas like Montgomery, AL, or Little Rock, AK. You’ll need to assess living expenses when considering job locations since higher salaries don’t go as far when everyday costs like rent and gas are comparatively high. 

Network

The strength of your network can influence the quality of job openings you have access to after graduation, which, in turn, can determine your salary. Building relationships with mentors, internship contacts, and alumni from your college can put you in a better position when searching for well-paying jobs. 

Negotiation skills

When you’re in the running for your first job out of college, you might feel as though you should accept the first offer and just be glad to have received it. While this perspective might give you a slight edge in securing a job, it won’t do you any favors regarding your lifetime earning potential. Since wage growth is often dependent on your salary history, even a small boost at the start of your career can lead to higher earnings later on. 

So, your ability to negotiate can impact your after-college salary. Suppose you can offer something that sets you apart from other entry-level candidates, like completing coursework in a specialized area. In that case, you can secure a higher starting salary. 

Don’t know how to negotiate? Check out this guide on how to negotiate your salary!

Average salary for a college graduate

Let’s dive into the numbers.

According to the National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE), the average salary for new graduates across all fields is $58,862. If your graduation date is approaching, there’s good news: starting salary numbers are rising. According to NACE’s most recent salary survey, all reported groups of majors are projected to see higher starting pay in 2024 than in 2023. 

Engineering majors are expected to be the class of 2024’s highest-paid grads, with an average starting salary of $76,736. Computer science majors come in second at $74,778, while math and science grads round out the top three with an average starting pay of $71,076. 

Here’s a full list of the highest-paid majors:

  1. Engineering
  2. Computer Sciences
  3. Math and Science
  4. Social Sciences
  5. Humanities 
  6. Business
  7. Communications
  8. Agriculture and Natural Resources

Now let’s consider earning potential by location. According to MoneyGeek’s analysis of median college graduate earnings by location, these five cities present the most lucrative opportunities for Bachelor’s degree holders. 

The highest-paid degree area is also listed:

  1. Providence, RI: Computer Science
  2. Calremost, CA: Computer Science
  3. Washington, D.C.: Computer Science
  4. Nashville, TN: Mathematics
  5. Brooklyn, NY: Nursing 

To put these numbers into context, the average salary across all education levels, locations and ages in the United States is $59,428. As you can see, earning a college degree puts you in a position to closely match or even exceed the average national salary straight out of school. 

Want to know what is a good starting salary in your field?

Browse our salary data tool to know the current market value for your skills and labor!

Salaries by education level

The numbers we’ve referenced so far have covered bachelor’s degrees, but what about if you’re pursuing a different level of education? The salary figures look much as expected: the more advanced the degree, the higher the average base pay. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, here are the median weekly earnings by education level in the U.S.:

  • Doctoral degree: $2,083 per week
  • Professional degree: $2,080 per week
  • Master’s degree: $1,661 per week
  • Bachelor’s degree: $1,432 per week
  • Associate’s degree: $1,005 per week
  • Some college, no degree: $935 per week
  • High school diploma: $853 per week
  • Less than a high school diploma: $682 per week

Average for all workers: $1,123 per week

Earning an advanced degree can dramatically impact your salary; based on these figures, master’s degree holders make 48% more than the average worker, while doctoral degree holders earn 85% more. 

Salaries after college: expectation versus reality

While earning prospects are strong for college graduates, today’s students tend to overestimate just how strong their paycheck will be once they walk across the stage at graduation. 

According to a recent survey of college students, the average undergraduate said they expect to make around $85,000 one year after graduation. Considering that the highest-earning new grads earn between $70,000 and $80,000, these expectations are clearly out of whack. 

To avoid an unpleasant surprise when you get your first job offer, it’s important to take an honest look at the salary numbers for your desired field, so you know what to expect. We have a comprehensive guide to salary information and employment projections available for free. Download our 2024 Salary Guide here. 

While money isn’t everything, it does influence nearly every aspect of life. That includes the decision to go to college and which degree to pursue. Hopefully these numbers add clarity to your educational journey and help you map out the career path that’s most suitable to your goals.