Salary Survey Extra: The legend of the high school diploma
Posted on
January 26, 2017

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 These posts contain previously unpublished Salary Survey data.

College lecture hall

Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. There are towering legends about IT movers and shakers who never completed university-level degree programs. And given that exceptionally bright people are often ready to seek success on their own at a relatively young age, there are probably many other success stories that begin the day that the hero of the story decided to drop out of college.

Given this example at the highest echelons of the industry, and the fact that you don't actually need to wait until college to develop a very solid grasp of highly employable IT skills, it's no wonder that college educations sometimes get a bad rap in tech circles. As Bill Gates famously told Harvard graduates in 2007, "I'm a bad influence. That's why I was invited to speak at your graduation. If I had spoken at your orientation, fewer of you might be here today."

There are also a lot of alternatives to college for studious and energetic tech strivers. If you want to open a successful dental practice, for example, it's more or less a requirement that you first earn a bachelor's degree and then go to dental school. If you have a head for computers, on the other hand, then the right combination of certifications and practical experience could launch a very successful IT career that never veers into college at all.

None of which is to suggest that every aspiring technologist, or even most of them, should plan to write off college altogether.

Last week we looked at some of the data from our 2016 Salary Survey about the link between formal education and certification. When you zoom in, in particular, on the 4.5 percent of U.S. survey respondents who entered the workforce with nothing more than high school diploma and now have an average annual income of $104,980, then you might suppose that you can do pretty well for yourself sans any whiff of college.

And that's would seem to be true ... in the long term. If we slice and dice a little, we find that the diploma-only respondents who have worked in IT for between zero (1-11 months) and 5 years have an average annual salary of just $60,810. If we advance that timeline to between 6 years and 10 years, then the outlook improves considerably, bumping up the average annual salary to $109,970.

And by the time that diploma-only respondents have been IT-employed for 10 years or longer, the average annual income figure is excellent: $123,320. Of course, if you've worked in IT for more than 10 years, then you have every right to expect to be a) good at what you do, and b) compensated accordingly.

So what if we apply the same filters to college graduates, namely the huge populations of survey respondents who hold bachelor's and master's degrees?

Years Worked in IT Average Annual Salary: Bachelor’s Degree Average Annual Salary: Master’s Degree
0-5 $77,230 $98,433
6-10 $102,430 $124,850
More than 10 $124,440 $133,330

2016 Salary Data

You don't need more than a high school diploma to succeed in IT, right?

Average annual salary is essentially among diploma-only respondents and bachelor's degree holders who have been in the industry for 6-10 year, or more than 10 years. Over the first five years of employment, however, a bachelor's degree will get you, on average, $17,000 more per year than a high school diploma. And that's probably a number worth thinking about.

And the master's degree, the Big Kahuna when we looked at education last week, still looks like a rock-solid investment in your future. Over the first five years of employment, a master's degree will get you, on average, $21,000 more per year than a bachelor's degree. And the master's degree retains its nearly $20,000 advantage over both bachelor's degrees and diplomas in years 6 through 10.

Exceptionally bright individuals can succeed in IT — some of them, yes, to an astronomical degree — without completing college. But think hard before you decide that college isn't right for you. There's a lot of earning potential tied up in that decision.

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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