Overall, the value of a college degree is greater in big cities and urbanized areas, and smallest in rural America, which means high school students ought to consider not only what they want to be when they grow up but where they want to live.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

New study: In Georgia, college degree really pays off

Everyone knows it pays to go to college. A new study suggests it pays even more in Georgia.

The study — “What you make depends on where you live: College Earnings Across States and Metropolitan Areas” — evaluates the “college earnings premium” by geographic area. Along with Washington, D.C., and New York, Georgia boasts one of the nation’s highest returns on a bachelor’s degree.

Workers in Georgia with a four-year degree earn 66% more on average than those with associate’s degrees and 101% more than those with only a high school diploma. Narrowing the focus to the state’s largest metropolitan statistical area -- Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell --  workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 68.4% more than those with associate degrees ($98,402 vs. $58,442) and 108.2% more than those with high school diplomas.

“I don’t want to say everyone should go to college but the returns to higher education are pretty considerable in Georgia,” says Iowa State University economist and study author John Winters, who earned his doctorate from Georgia State University. “One takeaway from the study is that job market opportunities for those without a lot of education are not very robust in Georgia.”

Winters examined earning levels in all 50 states and Washington and in more than 100 metropolitan areas, finding bachelor’s degree holders overall make 55% more than workers with associate’s degrees and 85% more than workers with high school diplomas.

In every state, bachelor’s degree holders strongly out-earn workers with associate’s degrees, with a more than 25% earnings advantage in all but three states: North Dakota, Alaska, and Vermont.

While salary data have long proven the value of a bachelor’s degree the study identified a surprising degree of variation in the college premium across the country, as well as between and within states. Overall, the value of a college degree is greater in big cities and urbanized areas, and smallest in rural America, which means high school students ought to consider not only what they want to be when they grow up but where they want to live.

“If a young person in Georgia wants to live in the metro area, it’s clear from the study that getting some higher education would be a really good idea,” said Winters.

As senior vice president for research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsored Winter’s research, Amber Northern is familiar with wage gaps. As a former high school teacher, she’s also familiar with teens.

“Whether to go to college always has to be the kid’s decision,” she said in a telephone interview. “But one thing that you want to put on the table: If a kid wants to live in Atlanta or New York City and doesn’t want to go to college, that is really a bad idea. If they’ve already made the decision a four-year degree is not for them, it is probably best not to go live in the big city.”

The study identifies some cities where an associate’s degree can furnish enough income to own a home and live comfortably, including Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City, Cleveland, Louisville and Kansas City. “It’s helpful to know where you can get a big bang for the buck for a two-year degree, relative to a four-year degree,” said Northern.

For example, the college boost is not as large in the second largest metropolitan statistical areas in Georgia -- Augusta-Richmond County --  as in metro Atlanta. In the Augusta area, workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 37.8% more than those with associate’s degrees ($73,407 vs. $53,274) and 50.3 % more than those with high school diplomas 

Raised in Mississippi, Winters understands rural and small-town teens may not have Atlanta or any big city yet in their sights. Those plans, though, could change in 10 years. “Not everyone knows their future locations, but, to the extent you are uncertain where you want to live, there is some value in building up options,” said Winters in a telephone interview. “What we now know: Whether or not people should go to college also depends on the areas where they think they might to live.”

While he doesn’t want to prescribe what high school students ought to do, Winters believes they need better information to decide for themselves. His own foray into college without any real advisement led him to read the entire course catalog to figure out his path, something he concedes few teens will ever do.

“I am a numbers guy and love spreadsheets,” he said. “The typical 17- and 18-year-old is not as inclined toward spread sheets. So, higher education ought to reach out to young people where they are at, maybe with well-produced short TikTok videos to help them understand more about job opportunities, career paths and earning potential.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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