Education

Florida college degrees evaluated for payoff

Florida college degrees evaluated for payoff

MIAMI -- It's that time of year when high school grads start heading off to college to chase their passions. Their parents probably hope those passions lead to degrees and jobs in four years -- and a minimal amount of debt.

Luckily, the state of Florida provides a wealth of information to help you choose where to study and what to major in.

Before shelling out tons of money for a diploma that's worth little, check out places like BeyondEducation.org, CollegeMeasures.org or FloridaShines.org. The websites pull state data about colleges, universities and the labor market to help students make better decisions about their higher-ed careers.

The differences in earning potential and job opportunities among degree types and fields of study can be surprising, said Troy Miller, associate director for research and policy at the Florida College Access Network.

"Not all credentials pay the same," Miller wrote in an email. "Students and their families should know how much they're likely to earn before making their plans."

Here are five things we bet you didn't know about getting a post-secondary credential -- and a job -- in the Sunshine State. (Most of these figures come from a December 2015 Economic Security Report by American Institutes for Research, an organization that works with state agencies to analyze data.)

STEM majors

Degrees in science, technology, engineering and math have been pushed as the surest way to land decent jobs after graduation.

Don't expect to make it big with a science degree in Florida, according to a report for the state by the American Institutes for Research. Biology majors are among the lowest-paid graduates in the state, earning $26,000.

On the other hand, math and engineering majors are among the highest earners. A degree in materials engineering will bring in almost $70,000. Accountants who graduate from Florida's public schools report they make about $40,000.

SF students make more

Say what you will about their losing sports teams, Florida International University students score off the field -- in their paychecks. FIU grads are the top earners among Florida public university graduates, with a median salary of about $36,000, according to AIR's report.

Miami Dade College grads who get their bachelor's degree earn the fourth-highest salaries among public colleges in Florida: $42,000. The numbers follow a statewide trend where Florida college graduates earn more than university degree holders.

The higher starting salaries could have as much to do with the labor market, geography and student body as the schools themselves.

"It depends on the market you end up in," said Mark Schneider, vice president and institute fellow at AIR. "If you're in Southern Florida, you're going to be advantaged."

Median wages at Florida's top universities, such as the University of Florida and Florida State, may be pushed down because more grads from those schools get jobs outside the state and therefore their salaries can't be tracked, according to AIR.

UF grads owe more

Earning a degree is expensive. Floridians owe $62 billion in student loans, according to federal data crunched by the Florida College Access Network. While tuition in Florida is among the lowest in the country, that still doesn't mean students can pay it all out of pocket.

That's especially so at the state's leading school, the University of Florida. UF students graduate with about $8,800 in federal loans, more than any other public school. The figure, from AIR's report, doesn't include private loans, and it doesn't rank debt among private school students.

"The rule of thumb is that you should not borrow more than your first-year expected earnings," Schneider said. "And we can tell you what your first-year earnings are with pretty good accuracy. So if you're going to make $35,000, don't borrow $75,000."

The debt load could be especially big at UF because more students there work toward a higher degree than in any other Florida university, with a quarter enrolling in continuing education classes.

Two-year degree payoffs

What's the difference between an associate's of science degree and a bachelor's in Florida? Answer: Two years and $10,000.

Florida graduates with an A.S. report higher starting salaries than the median for bachelor's degree holders -- $44,000 versus $34,000. Other technical certifications also pull more than a four-year degree.

"Even though we have what I call a 'bachelor's addiction,' the fact of the matter is there are other (credentials) besides a bachelor's degree that will put you solidly in the middle class," Schneider said.

A.S. degrees are geared toward specific jobs, from aviation maintenance to interior design. Their narrow focus probably accounts for some of the difference in earning potential. Also, students who earn an A.S. may already be working in the field, so their experience may lead to higher wages.

Getting an A.S. will help you earn more right out of the gate, but bachelor's degree holders may make more money over their lifetimes -- depending on the field. So in some cases, it's a good idea to finish up that four-year degree.

Most in-demand job

In a sure sign Florida's construction market is hot again, the state is looking to add more jobs in carpentry than any other field, according to the Florida Bureau of Labor Market Statistics. But that's only among jobs that make a certain (pretty low) wage and are growing faster than the area average.

There are almost 2,000 carpentry positions open annually in the state, and the field is expected to keep growing by more than 3 percent a year. Entry-level carpenters can expect to make about $25,000, but the average salary is $37,000. That's more than a first-year Florida university graduate with a bachelor's degree.

Despite the eye-catching stats, carpentry probably isn't Florida's hottest job. It could be that there is a lot of turnover in the field, or there could already be plenty of carpenters out there who just aren't employed.

Erin Gillespie, communications director for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said various measures over time point to the need being greatest for registered nurses. The state expects to employ almost 200,000 registered nurses by 2023 -- a growth rate of more than 16 percent.

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