graduation from collegeI don’t relish the decisions that young high school graduates have to make these days. College is expensive – much more so than when I went only 10 years ago. Students have to consider how much they can borrow and what income they are likely to earn at graduation, then cram those two critical decisions into a desirable college. It makes writing about the benefits of college just as difficult. I find myself fearful that I will discourage those likely to have bright futures with difficult stories and encouraging those who could use a little dose of reality with brighter news.

However, instead of quoting the latest statistics about successes and failures of college grads, I thought I’d share my personal experiences with education and income.

High School Graduate

On the wings of high school graduation, I struck out into the working world even though I was headed for college. Although I worked for a number of employers, I stayed in the restaurant industry until I graduated from college. I enjoyed the work, but it had one major setback. The pay was terrible.

I started and ended my restaurant career earning mostly below the poverty line. However, within about 3 years, I found myself receiving a promotion. Over the 7 year period that I worked in restaurants, my hourly rate had increased by an average of 6 percent per year. (At which point I was slightly above the poverty line).

My pay increases were much higher than national statistics, but also well above the rate of inflation. I do wonder if it was sustainable, though. It seems unlikely, even with more promotions, that I could have sustained the same rate throughout my whole career. There is only so high a manager’s salary can climb in the restaurant business.

Four-Year Degree

So long four-year college and hello mortgage industry! My new job came with a nearly 40 percent raise in income. It was far below national averages for a college graduate. However, I lived in an area with a low cost of living, which probably made the income about average for graduates in my field. Clearly, the income boost that came with the college degree was more than enough to personally justify my education. However, I did not see any change in the percent increases in my income.

After over 3 years, I’d been promoted twice and my personal income growth averaged 6 percent a year. By the end, I was still slightly below average income for graduating college students. So, I went back to school for my graduate degree.

Graduate Degree

In the middle of my graduate degree, I switched jobs. Coincidentally, I left the mortgage industry one day before Bear Stearns went under and the stock market crashed. I left the bubble bursting mortgage industry for manufacturing. Also, I accepted a 5 percent raise for the switch.

It seems as though the new job and graduate degree is paying off. After one promotion, my average rate of income increases is 9 percent – a 50 percent increase over my last two jobs. Odds are that my true compensation would show even larger gains. At each job, the benefits have grown.

The Takeaway

According to national statistics, those with more advanced degrees earn higher starting wages. Also, we’d expect to see income increases much greater than at jobs requiring lower levels of education. What is my own personal experience?

At each of my three jobs, I started out at entry level, but my starting salary grew larger in proportion to my degree attainment. Perhaps this wouldn’t be true for everyone, but it seems my personal experience fits in with national averages. I did see higher-than-expected wage increases at the lowest end of the job spectrum and my second job did not provide greater rates of income growth. However, my current job and master’s degree seem to have moved me into new rates of growth and opportunity.

To date, my income has more than quadrupled since the day I started working in college. For me personally, school has paid off in helping my income growth. I recognize that not everyone is guaranteed the same results, but if you ever wondered if real-life people ever fit the income projections in news articles, I do fit the bill.