Salary Survey Extra: The impact on income of higher education
Posted on
January 20, 2022

Salary Survey Extra is a series of periodic dispatches that give added insight into the findings of our most recent Salary Survey. These posts contain previously unpublished Salary Survey data.

What is the value of higher education in the IT sphere? Does an academic degree boost earning power?

The ongoing COVID pandemic has affected a lot of things that were once thought to be unshakeable pillars of society. That includes the four-year university education — college enrollment in the United States wobbled through the early months of the pandemic, and has been sliding ever since. Sort of like participation in the U.S. workforce, actually.

Employment researchers consistently find that IT employers prefer college graduates. That’s not likely to change in the near future, which could mean that a job market faced with fewer overall college graduates winds up paying more to hire the ones who are available. That’s clearly advantageous for anyone entering the workforce with an IT-related degree.

That’s to say nothing of the legions of certified IT professionals who graduated from college and already have jobs. They may find that the value of their education is more pronounced than usual. Does that mean that anyone contemplating a career in IT should necessarily pursue a college education?

There’s anecdotal evidence on both sides, of course. Some of the most venerated and successful figures in the professional IT landscape started college but dropped out before completing whatever course of study they were pursuing. Jack Dorsey famously dropped out of New York University one semester before he could (would?) have graduated and launched Twitter a year later.

On the other side of the coin are individuals like Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees.

Each year when the Salary Survey rolls around, we ask respondents to identify the highest level of formal education they’ve completed. The breakdown, with U.S. respondents separated from those chiming in from other nations, is as follows:

United StatesWhat is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
Bachelor’s degree: 37.3 percent
Master’s degree: 31.7 percent
Two-year college degree: 9.5 percent
Technical training (no college degree): 8 percent
Doctorate: 4.9 percent
High school diploma: 4.2 percent
Professional degree (such as for law or medicine): 3.1 percent
Currently in school: 1.2 percent
No formal education prior to entering the workforce: 0.1 percent

All Non-U.S. CountriesWhat is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
Bachelor’s degree: 38 percent
Master’s degree: 33.9 percent
Two-year college degree: 8.5 percent
Technical training (no college degree): 7.1 percent
High school diploma: 4.9 percent
Professional degree (such as for law or medicine): 4.3 percent
Doctorate: 3 percent
Currently in school: 0.2 percent
No formal education prior to entering the workforce: 0.1 percent

We’ve chosen not to consider the salary data from groups smaller than two percent of their respective survey populations. That leaves us with the following:


Highest Level of Education Salary    Highest Level of Education Salary
Doctorate $135,860    Doctorate $91,250
Professional degree $89,540 Professional degree $61,820
Master’s degree $120,870 Master’s degree $72,500
Bachelor’s degree $107,380 Bachelor’s degree $66,100
Two-year college degree $92,980 Two-year college degree $76,407
Technical training $107,220 Technical training $78,420
High school diploma $100,560 High school diploma $67,990
Insufficient data: Currently in school, no formal education prior to entering the workforce Insufficient data: Currently in school, no formal education prior to entering the workforce

2021 Salary Data

It would seem clear that you don’t have to attend a college or university to make your way in the IT realm. The sample size is small, but U.S. IT workers whose furthest foray into higher education was either completing high school or completing technical training (typically one or more certifications) are doing just fine for themselves.

Perhaps it bears repeating that the sample size is small. The survey compiled data from more than 5,000 certified IT professionals, and only 4.2 percent of all U.S. participants took the “high school diploma only” route, with somewhat more (8 percent) opting to enhance that learning with specialized training. More than 85 percent got some kind of college degree, and more than 75 percent devoted four or more years to achieving that degree.

Outside the United States, the best educational value available, at least in terms of future earning potential, would appear to be either post-high school technical training or — by quite an impressive margin — a doctorate. Neither option is widely pursued, of course, though adding some technical training after secondary school is more than twice as popular as pushing all the way up to a doctorate.

And though nearly 80 percent of non-U.S. IT workers who participated in the survey have either a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctorate, or professional degree, there’s no clear indication that those pristine academic credentials provide assurance of earning power.

In the United States, on the other hand, it seems clear that advanced degrees do lead to substantially higher incomes. While the average annual salary of a U.S. bachelor’s degree holder is only somewhat more impressive than that claimed by the admittedly much smaller class of high school-only survey respondents, holding a master’s degree or doctorate is a status clearly preferred (and compensated accordingly) by U.S. employers.

It’s interesting to note that professional degrees, no matter where you live, don’t seem to carry nearly as much weight in the IT sphere. Both inside the United States and around the world, certified IT professionals whose highest educational attainment is a professional degree are at the bottom of the salary scale. “Professional degree” is a somewhat nebulous label, though most professional degrees are considered to be at worst the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, and many are viewed as being on par with a doctorate.

About the Author

Certification Magazine was launched in 1999 and remained in print until mid-2008. Publication was restarted on a quarterly basis in February 2014. Subscribe to CertMag here.

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