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Where a Graduate Degree Adds Most to Your Wallet


Depending on the school, area of study and other factors, a graduate degree could cost anywhere between $30,000 and $120,000, according to the Education Data Initiative. And that’s after the cost of a bachelor’s. Amid the high expenses of education and ever-changing job markets, it’s important to weigh the opportunity costs of a graduate degree with the additional earning potential. And as it turns out, the additional earning potential of a graduate degree varies widely depending on the location.

To help people across the U.S. determine how much value a graduate or professional degree could add to their financial lives, SmartAsset ranked 281 metro areas based on the added annual income that someone could expect with a graduate degree when compared with having only a bachelor’s degree.

Key Findings

  • A graduate or professional degree nets an extra $484,000 over a career, on average. This equates to about $16,000 per year, when added to a bachelor’s. This assumes a 30 year career in a medium or large metro area. Across the U.S., the average graduate degree holder earns $72,000 annually. 
  • People with graduate degrees make less than $55,000 annually in these places.  Those with graduate or professional degrees make the least in The Villages, FL metro area, where annual pay averages $50,253. Other areas where higher education earns less than $55,000 include Prescott, AZ; Morristown, TN; College Station, TX; Florence, AL; and Jefferson City, MO.
  • Graduate degree holders earn less than those with a bachelor’s in these southern cities. Tuscaloosa, AL and Elizabethtown-Fort Knox, KY area residents actually see a negative return on their graduate degrees, almost $3,000 per year less than their counterparts with a bachelor’s. A graduate degree may not be worth it in other areas as well, with the pay increase averaging to less than $2,500 in Jefferson City, MO; College Station, TX; and Bloomington, IL metros.
  • Those with graduate degrees in the San Jose metro average $150,000 annual income. San Francisco has the second-highest earnings for workers with graduate degrees at $120,000. Those in Seattle, D.C., and the Trenton-Princeton metros also average over $100,000 per year. But a graduate degree in the New York City metro only nets $93,000 on average.

Top 10 Biggest Income Boosts With a Graduate Degree

1. San Jose, CA
There are 362,422 graduate degree holders in the San Jose metro area, representing 26.3% of the population aged 25 and older. People with graduate or professional degrees here also net the highest average annual income of all metro areas – $150,281. This is $48,067 more per year than workers with just a bachelor’s degree.

    2. Huntsville, AL
    Those with a graduate or professional degree made an average of $98,616 per year, which is $36,139 more than what a worker with a bachelor’s degree earns. Roughly 17.7% of adults here have this level of education (61,687 people).

    3. Trenton-Princeton, NJ
    Just over one in five people in the Trenton-Princeton metro have a graduate degree. This cohort averages an annual wage of $102,967, fifth-highest studywide. A graduate degree will earn residents here an average of $35,646 more than those with only a bachelor’s degree.

    4. St. George, UT
    St. George has the lowest average annual income for workers with graduate degrees in the top 10 ($73,872). This is nearly 84% higher than the income of someone with just an undergraduate degree. Roughly 17,500 people in this metro have a graduate or professional degree, or 14% of the adult population.

    5. Merced, CA
    A graduate degree earns workers in the Merced metro an additional $32,731, for an average annual income of $94,532. However, only 4.8% of the adult population here falls into this category – the second-lowest studywide.

        6. San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA
        San Francisco metro area residents earn the second-most of those with higher degrees at $120,480 per year. This is $31,449 more than those with a bachelor’s degree. Over three quarters of a million residents have a graduate or professional degree here, which is 22.4% of the adult population.

        7. Provo-Orem, UT
        Workers with a graduate degree make almost 60% more per year than those with a bachelor’s here: $82,607 vs. $51,825. Roughly 14.2% of the adult population is a part of this group, or 50,950 people.

          8. Visalia, CA
          The Visalia metro area has nearly 18,000 residents with graduate or professional degrees – only 6.3% of adults. Even so, workers with graduate degrees earn just about $93,000 annually, or $30,000 more per year than residents with just a bachelor’s degree.

              9. Salinas, CA
              Workers with graduate degrees in Salinas earn a comparable salary with those in Visalia, averaging $91,160. This is $29,056 more than what a worker with a bachelor’s makes. Roughly  12% of the adult population holds a graduate degree.

                10. Fresno, CA
                With a graduate or professional degree in the Fresno metro, workers earn an average of $28,853 more per year than someone with only a bachelor’s degree for a total of $86,422. Over 50,000 people chose this path, or about 8.3% of adults.

                    Data and Methodology

                    Data comes from the 2021 U.S. Census Bureau 1-Year ACS S1501. This study considered 281 metro areas in which the population aged 25 and older totaled 100,000 or more.

                    The median income for the population 25 and older with a graduate or professional degree was compared to the median income for the same population with a bachelor’s degree only to determine which metro areas had the highest nominal returns on the investment in a graduate degree.

                    Financial Tips for Graduates

                    • Consider working with a financial advisor. Financial advisors aren’t solely for retirees or the ultra wealthy. An advisor can help you set financial goals and put your money to work for you in an investment portfolio. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you.
                    • Start saving for retirement. Saving for retirement early in your career is one of the best financial moves you can make. Be sure to contribute to your workplace retirement plan, at least enough to qualify for your company match, if your employer offers one. Keep in mind that for every dollar you save at age 25, you could have $4.80 by age 65, even after accounting for inflation, according to Vanguard.
                    • Focus on paying off debt. If you have credit card or college loan debt to pay off, concentrate on getting rid of it as quickly as possible. Monthly debt payments sap your ability to save and invest your money for the future.

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