The regents study says a college degree is worth the work.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star 2015

Graduates of Arizona’s public-university system earn about $10,000 a year more on average than all other Arizona workers, according to a comprehensive new study that examined pay for more than 271,000 state residents.

To no surprise, people who earned degrees in highly sought majors such as engineering and business earned substantially more than the typical Arizonan with only a high school diploma, but even graduates with degrees in less-lucrative fields, such as ethnic/gender studies or the performing arts, also beat the average pay of $27,947 for those with just a high school diploma.

The study prepared for the Board of Regents — the governing body overseeing Arizona’s three state universities — examined actual pay records for people who graduated from any of those three universities with degrees between the 1989-1990 academic year and 2014-15. The study didn’t track pay of Arizona public-university graduates who left the state, nor of people with degrees from other universities. Also, for data-gathering reasons, federal employees and self-employed individuals were excluded.

“At a point in time when so many are questioning the value of college degrees, this study shows the value not just to students but to the state,” said Eileen Klein, president of the board. “A college degree beats no degree.”

How the numbers break down

The nearly 197,000 Arizonans who earned undergraduate degrees over the 25-year period earned $10.5 billion in cumulative wages over the most recent year, or a mean average of $53,303. The more than 74,000 graduate-degree holders earned $5.2 billion in 2015 combined, or $70,357 on average.

Pay variations ranged considerably, depending on the type of major. For people earning an undergraduate degree from Arizona State University, Northern Arizona or the University of Arizona, engineering was the top-paying major with a median wage of $86,443. The next-most-lucrative fields were computer/information sciences ($83,227), engineering technologies ($77,204), business/marketing/management ($66,438) and health professions ($61,112).

The lowest-paying degrees were those offered in area/ethnic/cultural/gender studies at $40,281. Other less-lucrative fields were visual/performing arts ($40,474), family/consumer services ($41,119), communications technologies ($41,730) and English language/literature ($42,834).

One graduate’s story

Mark Naufel, 24, is one recent graduate near the top of the pay charts. He earned a master’s degree in systems engineering in August from ASU, one year after earning a master’s degree in business analytics, also from ASU. Naufel said he’s now in the $70,000 to $100,000 range, declining to cite a specific figure.

The Tempe native, who also earned an undergraduate finance degree from ASU, said he received multiple job offers, including those from technology firms in Northern California, but chose to stay here.

“Silicon Valley is a great place to be, but the cost of living is lower here,” Naufel said, also describing the job opportunities and quality of life here as very good.

Klein expressed optimism that the pay figures might encourage more graduates to stick around. “Our students have good opportunities here in Arizona,” she said.

ASU grads earn most

ASU graduates tend to earn a bit more than those from the UA or NAU. The differences can be explained by several factors, said Dan Anderson, director of institutional analysis for the Board of Regents.

One is the different composition of majors at the three schools.

“Each institution has graduates in areas like engineering, business and health, but their share of the graduating class differs,” he noted.

Students graduating with degrees in high-demand fields such as business or engineering will earn more immediately and likely will see greater future pay increases than others such as those who go into teaching.

Also, the labor markets in which students find jobs also differ.

“We know that urban areas pay higher wages than rural areas,” Anderson said, meaning grads who find work in metro Phoenix as opposed to Flagstaff or other areas of the state generally will earn more.

Factors not studied

The study didn’t attempt to measure the costs that students incur to earn degrees — not just in actual expenses for tuition and such, but in wages forsaken to attend college.

While Arizona is relatively low for student loans, “We are concerned about the increasing amount of debt for Arizona students,” said Klein. “The affordability part is key.” Future studies might attempt to factor in these costs, Anderson said.

The study also didn’t attempt to measure other perceived benefits of a college degree.

For instance, a study by the College Board indicated graduates are more likely to receive workplace health and retirement benefits, are more likely to report heightened job satisfaction, are more likely to volunteer and vote, and are less likely to smoke or be obese.

At any rate, measuring even the value of a college degree in financial terms, to students and the state, has been difficult to do without detailed earnings data. The Board of Regents study is one of the most comprehensive of its type in the nation, Anderson said.

The study’s findings agree broadly with a 2015 Census Bureau survey that pegged the median earnings in Arizona of an individual with a graduate degree at $60,884 and pay for someone with a bachelor’s degree at $49,801.

The Census survey found that Arizonans with some college but no degree had median earnings of $33,632, compared with $27,947 for high school graduates only.

The census study wasn’t restricted to graduates of ASU, NAU or the UA.

tax impact

The Board of Regents study tracked earnings for 271,197 statewide public-university students whose pay was examined on an anonymous basis from unemployment insurance records maintained by the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

Collectively, these individuals paid an estimated $1.1 billion in state and local taxes on their combined $15.7 billion in wages. Their annual average mean wage was $57,985, compared to $47,937 for all similar workers.