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20 Jobs That Aren’t Worth Their Education Requirements

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For younger generations, the possibility of graduating from a university debt-free is becoming more of a pipe dream. Among 18-29 year olds, 62% who graduate with a bachelor’s degree took on debt to pay for their education, according to the Federal Reserve. And with the average cost of college increasing 15% since 2010-2011 — and that’s after pandemic-related tuition reductions for 2021 — it’s no wonder that many view the issue of student debt as a major problem.

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Although the average college grad outearns the average high-school grade by $1 million over the course of their careers, according to Beth Akers, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wages haven’t grown enough to compensate for this increase in cost. In fact, nominal wages have remained relatively flat, according to the Economic Policy Institute. So, while the price of higher education has steadily climbed, there has been almost no change in earnings.

Nowadays, it seems like a bachelor’s degree is required for even the most entry-level positions. But some of these jobs might not provide the financial return you’re looking for. While salary isn’t the only reason to take a job — advancement opportunities, benefits package, personal satisfaction and work-life balance all factor into the decision — it’s certainly a major consideration. In that context, some jobs fall short compared to the cost of earning a degree.

To determine which jobs aren’t worth their education requirements, GOBankingRates analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree with no previous work experience. From there, the study looked at a number of factors pertaining to each job, including the average four-year degree cost and 30-year earnings after paying off the degree and calculated the median annual salary for each occupation after adjusting for degree costs. Jobs were ranked based on their return on investment.

Check to see if your current job is on the list and whether you should consider finding a more stable career.

Last updated: Feb. 8, 2021

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20. Exercise Physiologists

  • Major: Exercise physiology
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $49,170
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $43,418

Exercise physiologists help sick and injured patients by developing fitness programs to get them healthy. As of 2019, there were 19,800 exercise physiologists across the country, with about 40% self-employed. You might think this will lead to considerable uncertainty, but the job growth for this position is faster than average at 11%.

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19. Athletic Trainers

  • Major: Athletic training/trainer
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $48,440
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $42,688

The need for athletic trainers is expected to grow 16% in the next several years. Athletic trainers can work in a variety of places, including schools, colleges, hospitals and fitness centers. Trainers employed in the educational services industry earn the most, with a median salary of $52,660.

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18. Recreational Therapists

  • Major: Therapeutic recreation/recreational therapy
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $48,220
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $42,468

Recreational therapists coordinate activities and treatment programs for individuals with special needs, injuries or illnesses. As baby boomers age, the need for recreational therapists will grow — which may result in a much-needed salary increase for this position as well.

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17. Social Science Research Assistant

  • Major: Psychology or social science discipline
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $47,510
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: 41,758

Social science research assistants work in various areas of social science research and might be involved in managing data and preparing research findings for publication. Most work in the scientific research and development industry or in colleges, universities or professional schools. Wage growth from 2018-2019 was just 1.9%, but the number of jobs is expected to increase 6% through 2029.

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16. Social Worker

  • Major: Social work
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $47,390
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $41,638

While a bachelor’s degree is the most common way to jump-start your career in social work, clinical social workers must obtain a master’s degree followed by two years of experience in a clinical setting. What’s more, they must acquire a license in the state where they practice. Considering the rigorous licensing and educational requirements, social workers get paid exceptionally low salaries for their work.

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15. Reporters and Correspondents

  • Major: Broadcast journalism
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,566
  • Median salary: $46,270
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $40,518

Reporters and correspondents, including news analysts, inform the general public about current events and news. Many people in these positions do not have a regular schedule and often need prior work experience in radio, television or a newspaper. This particular field of work is projected to see a 11% decline, but earnings are increasing, with 6.4% wage growth from 2018-2019.

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14. Mental Health Counselors

  • Major: Mental health counseling/counselor
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $46,240
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $40,488

While a bachelor’s degree is typical for this position, many jobs require you to have a master’s degree and an internship to be considered. Considering the level of education and experience to work in this field, the adjusted salary is fairly low for mental health counselors. But considering the 25% projected job growth, a shortage of counselors could drive up wages

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13. Credit Counselor

  • Major: Finance-related
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $45,950
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $40,198

Credit counselors teach individuals or organizations how to manage debt. In addition to advising clients about loans, they can devise debt repayment and credit improvement plans, as well as provide mortgage and bankruptcy counseling. Although a bachelor’s degree is typically required, counselors may receive on-the-job training.

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12. Biological Technicians

  • Major: Biology/biological sciences
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $45,860
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $40,108

Biological technicians aid biological and medical scientists with experiments and tests. A bachelor’s degree is typical for this position, but additional laboratory experience is preferred. The projected job growth position 5% — which is surprising considering the salary.

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11. Agricultural Inspector

  • Major: Biology or agricultural science
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $45,490
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $39,738

Agricultural inspectors make sure that agricultural, fishing and logging operations comply with legal and regulatory requirements for health, safety and quality. Projected employment growth for agricultural inspectors is just 2% through 2029, but year-over-year wage growth was 3.1% from 2018-2019.

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10. Museum Conservator

  • Major: Art history, history, archaeology
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $44,430
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $38,678

Conservators are responsible for the care of artwork other items in a museum’s collection. Some conservators work on historical sites or for educational institutions or corporations. Although a master’s degree is usually required, smaller museums might hire those with a bachelor’s degree. Job opportunities are expected to grow 11% through 2029, and wages saw a slight, 3.3% increase from 2018-2019.

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9. Community and Social Service Specialist

  • Major: Psychology
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $43,790
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $38,038

Community and social service specialists facilitate social service and community outreach programs. Most are employed by local and state governments, but many work for individual and family service providers, schools and social advocacy organizations. With projected employment growth of 12%, jobs should be plentiful through 2029 — albeit at modest wages.

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8. Proofreader and Copy Marker

  • Major: Communications, journalism or English
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $40,630
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $34,878

Proofreaders check copy to make sure it’s free of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, and they verify that facts are accurate and correctly cited. Although wages are on the rise, with a 3.8% increase from 2018-2019, the industry is losing jobs. Employment is projected to decline by 3% through 2029.

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7. Library Worker

  • Major: Library technology
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $40,310
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $34,558

Library workers work under the supervision of librarians to assist visitors, catalog, shelve and loan library materials and perform clerical and administrative tasks. Projected job growth is 4% through 2029, but wages declined 4.2% from 2018 to 2019, making it tough to get a good financial return on your education investment.

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6. Tutors

  • Major: Education
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $39,350
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $33,598

Whereas teachers teach groups of students in classrooms, tutors work with students one on one, whether in a school or other education organization, a tutoring company or within their own business. With projected employment growth of 7% through 2029, opportunities should be plentiful, but wages were down very slightly from 2018-2019.

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5. Coach

  • Major: Physical education, physiology, sports science
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $34,840
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $29,088

Coaches help athletes perfect their skills in their chosen sport. Some coaches also serve as scouts to recruit new athletes to their programs. You’ll have to love sports more than you love high wages for this to be a viable career choice, but if that’s the case, 12% projected employment growth through 2029 makes it likely that you’ll find a job.

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4. Broadcast Announcer

  • Major: Journalism, broadcasting, communications
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $34,630
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $28,878

Broadcast announcers, including disc jockeys, primarily work in radio broadcasting, but 28% are self-employed. Some work part-time, which certainly affects the median salary for this position. Employment opportunities are stagnant, with just 1% growth expected through 2029. On the upside, wages grew 4.2% from 2018-2019.

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3. Teaching Assistant (Postsecondary)

  • Major: Varies
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $32,080
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $26,328

Postsecondary teaching assistants are graduate students who provide instructional support by teaching undergrad courses, preparing teaching materials, facilitating group discussions, administering exams and grading papers. Unfortunately, already-low wages declined 4.8% from 2018-2019, but if you’re undeterred by a low salary, projected employment growth of 3% means you have a reasonable chance of finding a position.

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2. Religious Worker

  • Major: Theology, religious studies
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $31,630
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $25,878

As you’d expect, religious organizations employ the vast majority of religious workers, but there are also opportunities in social advocacy and home healthcare. Although this is a low-paying job, the future is promising, with a 6.1% wage increase from 2018-2019 and a modest growth projection of 3% through 2029.

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1. Substitute Teacher (Short-Term)

  • Major: Varies
  • Four-year degree cost: $172,556
  • Median salary: $28,790
  • Salary adjusted for degree cost: $23,038

The trade-off to having a flexible, part-time schedule is a low salary for an undisputably important job. However, some substitutes do get benefits after they’ve worked for a certain number of hours. That’s a good thing, considering that wages are stagnant, with just 0.4% growth from 2018-2019.

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Daria Uhlig contributed to the reporting for this article. 

Methodology: In order to find 20 jobs that aren’t worth their education requirements, GOBankingRates looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook and filtered for occupations that required a Bachelor’s degree and no previous work experience in the field. Once these occupations were filtered down, GOBankingRates looked at (1) the national average cost of a Bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution, calculated by quadrupling the estimated annual price of attendance for students in the 2017-18 school year reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. GOBankingRates then found each occupation’s (2) median annual salary in 2019 as sourced from the BLS May 2019 Occupational Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. This factor was multiplied by 30 to give (3) a 30-year earnings figure and factor (1) was subtracted from it to give (4) 30- Year Earnings after degree cost. Finally, factor (4) was divided by 30 to give the only ranking factor, (5) median annual salary adjusted for degree cost. Factor 5 was the only determination in final rankings. On-the-job training required, projected employment growth (2018-2028), and year-over-year wage growth (2018 – 2019) were added as supplemental data for the 20 jobs highlighted and were sourced from the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook and the 2017 BLS National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. All data was collected on and up to date as of January 27, 2021.