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 These posts contain previously unpublished Salary Survey data.
According to the most recent data (as of 2021) compiled by the U.S. Census bureau, 48.4 percent of Americans age 25 or older have completed some level of college education, whether an associate's degree (10.5 percent), bachelor's degree (23.4 percent), or advanced degree (14.4 percent). ("Advanced" degrees are most often master's degrees, doctorates, and professional degrees.)
That may sound surprisingly high to some, and alarmingly low to others. Interestingly, however, the percentage of Americans who have have college degrees has increased across all three quadrants (associate's, bachelor's, and advanced) since 2011. So while it's fair to question the relevance of college degrees, an increasing number of U.S. residents still view college as the best path to a brighter future.
(We'll pause here to note that enrollment in colleges did take a hit from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. So it's fair to speculate that much of the growth tracked occurred prior to 2020.)
IT professionals, whether living in the United States or elsewhere in the world, are much more likely to hold college degrees than the average individual. That doesn't mean that you can't or won't succeed in IT without a college education. 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.
Apple was founded by a couple of college dropouts, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (with limited partner Ronald Wayne). Jobs dropped out of Reed College in Portland, Ore., after just one semester, while "Woz" was expelled from University of Colorado Boulder for hacking and then dropped out of University of California, Berkeley. (Jobs did audit a number of courses at Reed before abandoning college altogether, while Wozniak eventually completed his abandoned UC Berkeley degree in electrical engineering and computer sciences.)
On the other side of the coin are individuals like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees.
So which is it? Will you enjoy greater success and — perhaps more to the point — earn more money if you enter the IT workforce with a college degree? Are the high-profile successes of non-college educated IT superstars a glamorous outlier? Or can other folks succeed on their own terms even if a college degree just isn't in the cards?
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 States — What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
Bachelor’s degree: 36.9 percent
Master’s degree: 32.3 percent
Two-year college degree: 10.9 percent
Technical training (no college degree): 7 percent
Doctorate: 6.2 percent
High school diploma: 2.8 percent
Professional degree (such as for law or medicine): 2.4 percent
Currently in school: 1.3 percent
No formal education prior to entering the workforce: 0.2 percent
All Non-U.S. Countries — What is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
Bachelor’s degree: 40.1 percent
Master’s degree: 30.6 percent
Two-year college degree: 9.4 percent
Technical training (no college degree): 6.8 percent
High school diploma: 4.7 percent
Professional degree (such as for law or medicine): 4 percent
Doctorate: 3.2 percent
Currently in school: 0.8 percent
No formal education prior to entering the workforce: 0.4 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:
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 including 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 roughy 14,000 certified IT professionals, and only 2.8 percent of all U.S. participants took the “high school diploma only” route, with somewhat more (7 percent) opting to enhance that learning with specialized training. Nearly 90 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. It does seem clear that, outside the U.S., master's degree have more juice than bachelor's degrees.
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 survey respondents who topped out at some form of technical training, 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.