Brighten Your 5-year Outlook: The Difference a Degree Can Make

Brighten your outlook

Where will you be in five years? In a decade? What about when you're ready for retirement? Benchmarking your professional and personal life is a great American pastime – with good reason, too. Looking ahead helps you plan ahead, and adequate prior planning can help ensure you minimize the unavoidable financial bumps you'll encounter in life.

A lot can happen to you in five years, and you can make a lot happen for yourself as well. A college degree is one of the best tools available to help you plan your future and achieve your goals. Whether you're a high school senior wondering what to do after graduation, or a professional considering a return to college, earning a degree should be an integral part of your personal five-year plan.

People with a bachelor's degree earn $457 more per week than those with only a high school diploma and $381 more than people who dropped out of college, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. They're also more likely to be employed, the BLS reports. Clearly, more job opportunities are available for people who have a degree, than for those who only have a high school diploma, or those who attended some college, but never finished their degree.

Most Promising Career Fields

Whether you're a high school graduate considering college and unsure what field to enter, or a working professional considering a career change, it's valuable to know what industries are projected to grow over the next decade. Most of the fastest-growing and highest-paying career fields require at least a four-year degree for entry, according to data from the BLS' Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Four fields expected to grow by 30 percent or more between now and 2022 are information security analysts; interpreters and translators; market research analysts and marketing specialists; and meeting, convention, and event planners, according to the Handbook. All require a bachelor's degree and offer potential salaries ranging from $35,000 to $75,000, or more. Health care jobs are expected to grow across the board, and while some need no more than a high school diploma, those tend to be lower-paying jobs. In-demand jobs that also pay well generally require a four-year degree or higher.

A Georgetown University study found that the major you choose also influences your future employability. For example, the unemployment rate for nursing graduates was just 4.8 percent, far below the national average, which currently hovers between 6 and 7 percent. Education, engineering, and health science graduates also had lower unemployment rates because they were entering fields that are expected to grow, the study reported.

The Broader Impact on Life

A college degree affects far more than just your earning potential and employability. Five years after higher education, your degree may also influence your finances, society, and retirement planning.

As a college graduate, you're more likely to have health insurance through an employer than people who didn't finish college, finished high school but never went to college, or didn't complete high school, according to the National College Board's report "Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society."

The same report reveals the college graduate makes a positive contribution toward the next generation and society. Mothers with a bachelor's degree or higher invest more time into their children's education and activities. Additionally, exponentially more degreed individuals actively volunteered in their community, and 1.7 times more college graduates than high school grads voted in the 2012 presidential election.

College campuses are the epitome of a melting pot. Young adults from all over the world with diverse backgrounds and experiences descend upon the same campus, get educated together, and become friends—often life-long relationships form or young men and women meet their future spouses. A global mindset ensues, and possibly creates a more tolerant, compassionate people. In 2004, a National Opinion Research Center survey concluded that 79 percent of adults with higher-level degrees and 73 percent with bachelor's degrees "believed it was very important (6 or 7 on a scale ranging from 1 to 7) to try to understand the reasoning behind the opinions of others."

It Doesn't End at Five Years

Ample evidence illustrates how a college degree can benefit you in the short and mid-term. How will it affect your life long term?

In addition to higher earnings and improved financial stability, a college degree also makes you more likely to have better retirement saving habits – something that can benefit you for decades after completing your degree.

A higher annual income means you'll pay more into Social Security and receive a higher payout when it comes time to claim benefits. You'll also be more likely to have better retirement income outside of Social Security. Those with a college degree receive, on average, $6,500 more per year in non-social security retirement income than retirees with only a high school diploma, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis. The center reports that each additional year of college education reduces by three percent the likelihood that a retiree will have no retirement income other than Social Security.

Finally, having a college degree may mean you're more likely to live independently longer than people of the same age group with less education. People 65 and older with a four-year college degree are 6.2 percent less likely to have difficulty living independently than those with only a high school diploma, the NCPA reports. Those with a master's degree are 4.8 percent less likely to have difficulty caring for themselves.

While many people pursue a college degree with an eye toward the immediate and short-term benefits, the paybacks continue far beyond five years. Completing a degree not only helps you build your five-year professional plan, but it can help you forecast where you'll be personally, professionally, and financially throughout your post-college lifetime.

Lizzie Wann is the Content Director for Bridgepoint Education. She oversees all website content and works closely with New Media, Career Services, and Student Services for Ashford University.

Photo credit: "Tartu–Räpina–Värska road in Kärsa village" by Ivar Leidus (Iifar) – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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