It’s no secret that increased earning potential and financial stability are key reasons students pursue higher education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, individuals with a bachelor’s degree make $525 more per week than those with a high school diploma. Over the course of a lifetime, that can amount to earnings in the hundreds of thousands or even millions.
However, salaries vary widely depending on the industry, position, career level, and location. For students prioritizing a high return on investment (ROI), this list of the highest-paying online degrees can offer guidance toward lucrative career paths.
Blanca Villagomez, a program coordinator, and counselor at UC-Irvine, also offers her expertise in what students should consider when choosing their career, how ROI factors into career choice, and how to prepare for job interviews and salary negotiations.
What to Consider When Choosing a Degree
When choosing a degree, Villagomez says, “Your job is to choose a program that aligns with your interests, budget, and goals so that you possess the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in your future career.”
Throughout the process, there’s one key point Villagomez wants students to understand.
“Choosing a degree program is a highly personal decision that’s influenced by a variety of factors like cultural background, age, socioeconomic status, immigration status, and more,” she says. “I work with some students who are older and have children. Their career goals and priorities look vastly different from a college freshman. Everyone’s career journey will be different.”
Reflection is key to fully understanding your unique goals, interests, and needs. “What are your motivations for pursuing a degree?” Villagomez says. “What are you passionate about learning? What are your long-term career goals, and how will a degree help you achieve them?” The more specific you are about what you’re looking for in a degree program, the easier your search process will be.
Students should also carefully weigh the financial aspects of higher education. “Making an informed decision based on ROI when selecting a degree program is a wise approach,” Villagomez says. “However, ROI isn’t just financial. It also encompasses transferable skills, networking opportunities, and long-lasting friendships.”
Villagomez adds, “I recommend that students thoroughly research the job market they’re interested in and pay attention to the projected salaries and available career advancement opportunities for their intended major. They can gather this information from online resources, career services, and industry professionals.”
Highest Paying Online Degrees
Being an air traffic controller is a demanding but highly lucrative career. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for air traffic controllers in 2021 was $129,750, with 10% of people in this field earning $185,990 or more. Becoming an air traffic controller typically starts with earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree from a Federal Aviation Administration-approved Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative program. Air traffic controllers also need significant on-the-job training, must be U.S. citizens, and pass a medical evaluation, background check, and drug screenings.
As society’s reliance on computers and other digital technologies has grown, so has the demand and compensation for experts in information technology. According to the BLS, Computer and information systems managers responsible for planning, coordinating, and directing computer-related activities in an organization earn a median annual salary of $159,010. Most jobs within the IT sector require a bachelor’s degree, although some jobs can be obtained with an associate degree. High-level positions may seek candidates with a master’s degree.
Working with money often leads to earning more money, which is why finance is another of the highest-paying online degrees. For example, the median annual salary for a financial manager is $131,710. Individuals in this role are responsible for the financial health of organizations, overseeing investments, budgets, and financial reports. The standard level of education for entry-level finance positions is a bachelor’s degree, with more advanced positions seeking graduates with a master’s degree or MBA in finance.
Marketing is a fast-growing, ever-evolving field that can offer significant financial rewards to those with the knowledge and skills it demands. The BLS reports that marketing managers earn a median annual salary of 135,030. As marketing draws on a diverse set of skills, including sales, business, communication, design, and more, this is an ideal career for individuals with strong creativity, problem-solving, and analytical skills. Depending on the job, students may be qualified with an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree in marketing.
The median annual salary for human resources managers is $126,230, making human resources a lucrative career path for those with strong interpersonal, leadership, and communication skills. Human resource managers typically oversee an organization’s administrative functions, particularly recruiting, hiring, and managing staff. Individuals typically enter the human resources field with a bachelor’s degree, although some high-level positions may seek candidates with a master’s degree or an MBA.
Nursing is a broad field that includes several high-paying advanced positions. According to the BLS, the median average salary for a nurse practitioner is $120,680, while nurse anesthetists can earn as much as $195,610 per year. These complex, highly skilled positions require master’s degrees, although students can enter the healthcare field with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. This allows individuals to start working and earning money and experience while they pursue the necessary education credentials for high-level positions.
Computer science is another technology-related degree that can open up opportunities for profitable careers. An example of a high-paying job in the computer science field is a data scientist. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for data scientists is $100,910. Data scientists extract insights from data using analytical tools and techniques, such as machine learning. Entry-level data scientist jobs are usually available to individuals with a bachelor’s degree, while more advanced positions may require a master’s degree.
Math skills are in demand for a number of jobs, including some that offer six-figure salaries. For example, according to the BLS, the median annual salary for actuaries is $105,900. Actuaries are vital to the insurance industry, as they analyze the financial costs of risk and uncertainty using math, statistics, and financial theory. A bachelor’s degree in mathematics, statistics, or business will usually qualify students for most entry-level positions.
Even as the energy sector changes, nuclear technicians are still needed to help engineers maintain and operate equipment and monitor radiation levels. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for individuals in these roles is $99,340, with the top 10% of earners making $126,600 per year. This can be a high ROI field, as nuclear technicians typically only need an associate degree in nuclear science or a nuclear-related technology.
Individuals with strong technical, analytical, business, and decision-making skills may want to pursue a degree in construction to open doors to lucrative opportunities. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for construction managers is $98,890. The top 10% of earners make over $163,800 per year. Construction managers oversee construction projects from start to finish, including planning, coordinating, and budgeting. Individuals typically earn a bachelor’s degree in construction management as a way to enter the field.
How ROI Factors Into College and Career Choice
“It’s not uncommon for students to select a major based primarily on their potential future earnings, especially considering the significant amount of debt many graduates with,” Villagomez says.
Given that earning a degree also requires an investment of time and energy, students want to know if it will all be worth it in terms of personal satisfaction, advancement opportunities, and financial rewards.
Says Villagomez, “While certain majors may lead to higher salaries compared to others, it’s crucial for students to recognize that building a successful career takes time, and financial gain is not always linear. In the short term, earning the highest possible salary might be the priority, but it’s equally important to consider the potential for growth and advancement in the chosen field.”
Higher education is also a situation where what you get out of it is closely linked to what you put into it.
“Employers seek candidates with a passion for growth and a willingness to take on new challenges,” Villagomez says. “While in school, students must actively pursue opportunities to develop skills and knowledge outside of the classroom in order to stand out,” leading to a broader array of opportunities and more leverage for salary negotiations.
How Much Does an Online Degree Cost?
The cost of an online degree varies based on a number of variables, including:
- Public vs. private institutions: Colleges in the U.S. are either public, which means they receive federal and state funding, or private, which means all funding comes from tuition, endowments, donations, and other sources. Public colleges and universities typically charge lower tuition rates than private institutions. However, other factors listed below can impact what a student’s tuition actually is.
- Student residency: Public institutions offer the lowest tuition rates to students who reside in the state (or region) where a school is located. Out-of-state students are often charged a higher tuition rate, although some online programs may charge students the same tuition regardless of where they live. Private universities charge all students the same tuition rate, regardless of where they live.
- Type of degree: Whether earning an associate, bachelor’s or advanced degree will also affect the price. For example, at public, nonprofit universities in the 2020-21 academic year, the average undergraduate in-state tuition was $9,375, and the average graduate tuition was $12,394. Meanwhile, at private nonprofit institutions, average undergraduate tuition was $32,825, and average graduate tuition was $28,445.
- Financial aid: The published tuition rate and what a student ends up paying often end up being different, thanks to financial aid like scholarships, grants, work-study, and discounts. This type of gift aid, which doesn’t have to be paid back, can significantly lower the out-of-pocket and loan costs for students.
In many ways, online degrees can help students save money. For example, students who don’t have to travel to campus spend less on gas, parking, or public transportation fees. Regardless of where their school is located, students can choose to live in an area that fits their budget. And because of the flexibility of online learning, students may be better positioned to work full- or part-time while attending classes.
How Do Employers View Online Degrees?
Technological and pedagogical advancements and a global pandemic made remote learning necessary and firmly entrenched online degrees as a legitimate, respected avenue for higher education.
From an employer’s point of view, what typically matters most is not how you attended classes but whether the institution that granted your degree is a regionally accredited, nonprofit school. These colleges and universities are held to more rigorous academic and quality standards and invest more money into students than for-profit institutions. Therefore, employers tend to have a more favorable view of degrees from these types of schools. For some professions, students must have a degree from a regionally accredited institution in order to qualify for professional licenses and credentials.
However, Villagomez says, “Every industry and employer values online degrees differently. I recommend that students conduct several informational interviews with companies they are interested in to understand the perceptions of potential employers.”
In today’s world of remote and hybrid work, earning a degree online can even be an asset. This type of learning promotes transferable skills like time management, working independently, organization, communication, and tech troubleshooting. When it comes time to apply for jobs, leverage these skills as strengths on your resume and in interviews.
How To Negotiate a Salary Offer
Getting paid top dollar, especially in your first job after earning your degree, can be tricky, but it’s not impossible.
Becoming the best job candidate you can be so you can negotiate the highest salary possible begins before graduation, VIllagomez says.
“Begin by meeting with a career counselor on your campus and developing an action plan that aligns with your career and educational goals,” she says. “Colleges and universities offer a wealth of professional development resources to help you succeed in your job search, including resume-building workshops, mock interviews, career fairs, and coaching sessions.”
She also encourages students to get involved in campus organizations, particularly leadership roles, to help develop valuable transferable skills. Networking is also a powerful tool, as connections with faculty, peers, and professionals can lead to a variety of career opportunities.
Once it comes time to start job searching, it’s important to research salary ranges for individuals in your industry and location with your level of education. A thorough understanding of the industry pay standards is critical to your ability to negotiate the best salary based on your education and experience.