In 2021, the median entry level salary of a college graduate across 8 different kinds of Bachelor’s degrees will be $62,000, according to a recent National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey. Considering that the median household income level in the United States was $59,000 in 2016, college graduates with bachelor’s degrees aren’t faring too badly, on the whole. In fact, the average salary for college graduates is up between 1% and 11% year over year, with some averages dipping during the COVID-19 pandemic.
That said, whether you’re still a student or a recent grad, your entry-level pay probably feels like it could always be more. Not only do many of us have student loans to pay off, but we also face realities like rising living expenses and dreams of financial independence. We found there are at least five factors that go into your entry level pay — and here, we break down how you can tweak these factors to make the income you want.
1. First, entry pay levels are frequently based on market conditions.
As any post-recession graduate can tell you that the job market is sometimes hot, and sometimes not. For example, the graduating classes of 2009 and 2010 entered a very competitive job market after the Great Recession, and this probably hurt that group’s entry level salaries as a whole. The class of 2020 likely faced similar hurdles to getting paid the worth of their degree. Starting a job in a low market can sometimes impact pay even beyond the entry level years — as salaries are generally based on salary history, it can be hard to negotiate or reset compensation levels as the economy improved.
2. Entry level salaries also generally depend on location.
We all know certain cities are more expensive to live in, and in some cases, salaries also adjust to the cost of living. People in the New York and San Francisco markets are generally compensated higher than their peers in other cities. In some cases, national employers simply pay a similar entry level salary across different offices. Taking this into consideration when planning your job can make it easier to save more, if you work and live in a lower-cost city for that company.
3. What you studied in school matters — a lot.
Every year, NACE surveys employers of recent graduates. Their most recent 2021 data shows that students who had bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer science and math all reported average salaries higher than the average entry level salaries across a broader spectrum of degree areas.
Conversely, for graduates studying business, humanities, social sciences, communications and agricutlure, average salary levels in 2021 were lower than the average. For those studying agriculture, for example, the average starting salary in 2021 was $54,857. Contrast this to the best paid graduates that year — those who studied computer science — who make $72,173.
4. Your choice of job — regardless of what you studied — also matters.
After all, if you’re not inclined to pursue a job in the area in which you studied, nothing ties you to your major. You are free to pursue any type of job or position that is more financially lucrative than whatever you studied in school (read: you can still work in marketing even if you majored in history).
Just because you studied communications doesn’t mean you can’t apply for an entry level business analyst role, for example. And if you land a job in the right place as a business analyst, you may even end up making more than someone who studied math and is working in a less well-paying industry or company.
5. Finally, what you earn is also a function of the industry in which you work and your specific employer.
Consult a salary calculator to see how company size and industry can impact your entry level salary. Many of these calculators also take into account things like your location, years of experience and even the prestige of your educational degree.
The thing that none of these number crunching salary calculators will help answer for you, however, is how you feel about your job and career. While money may be top of mind for the moment, it may not have been the primary reason you chose your major. Moreover, it may not be the reason you took your entry-level job. There are many non-monetary reasons to work, ranging from self-fulfillment to getting a certain kind of apprenticeship experience. Sometimes, you take less than maximum pay in your entry level job because you’re “paying your dues.”
So, how much should your entry level job pay? It depends on why you are working and whether you’re willing to move, change jobs and companies. While it’s helpful to know the average salary levels of different kinds of entry level positions, it isn’t the only consideration in terms of where you work and what you do for a living. Unfortunately there’s not (yet) a calculator to help you plan a career factoring all these different kinds of variables.