In 2014, the state legislature requested that Washington's Education Research & Data Center (ERDC) “create a report of employment and earnings outcomes for degrees, apprenticeships and certificates earned at public schools and universities.” The agency delivered that report in 2015, along with an interactive dashboard that displays earnings data for students in different fields of study and levels of attainment.

The results will surprise anyone who still believes that a 4-year degree is the only route to career success. Using data from the high school graduating class of 2009, the report reveals the earnings for individuals in Washington State across a number of educational pathways. Data like this can be useful to students and parents planning their schooling and workforce training, as well as policymakers deciding how to distribute funding among the many postsecondary institutions.

Unemployment insurance wage records collected by the Washington State Employment Security Department are used to determine earnings. These data do not include self-employed individuals, federal employees or those employed exclusively outside Washington state. The dataset includes the earnings of students who received degrees or certificates from public universities and colleges (including community and technical colleges), or those who completed apprenticeship programs in Washington and are employed in the state.

The findings reinforce other recent research publications that have found multiple pathways to highly compensated employment that don’t require 4-years or more of postsecondary training.

One noteworthy trait of this dataset is that it represents first-year earnings only. Perhaps over time a longitudinal dataset can be developed which tracks individuals for many years in regards to earnings, employment status, and

Apprenticeships Rule!

Upon evaluating the data, one major takeaway is the huge ROI for apprenticeships. Among seven types of postsecondary credentials featured in the study, apprenticeships finished just behind those in the highest-paid category of doctoral degrees. The median individual earned $69,200 in the first year after completing their apprenticeship. That’s more than those who received Bachelor’s, Master’s, and nonprofessional Doctoral degrees!

Apprenticeships follow an “earn while you learn” model, combining classroom studies with extensive, paid, on-the-job training under supervision of a journey-level craftsperson or trade professional. This “get paid to learn” model makes apprenticeships a great way to avoid debt while jumpstarting a highly compensated career.

Figure 2 below shows median first-year earnings for apprentice completers in five specific fields. The Washington State median earning for all completers was $69,200. Law enforcement, firefighting and related protective services apprenticeships had the highest median first-year earnings ($86,900). 


Strong Performance from Certificates & Associate's degrees


  • The highest first-year earnings for certificates requiring at least one year of study were in engineering-related fields. The median earnings were $39,400. That’s more than $37,900 median first-year earnings for general 4-year degree holders.
  • The school with the lowest first-year earnings for graduates with these degrees was Centralia College ($23,100); the highest, Edmonds Community College ($39,500).
  • The lowest median first-year earnings were received by graduates with certificates in education ($24,600).
  • The institution where 2012 graduates with certificates in health professions and related programs had the highest median first-year earnings was Bellevue College ($37,400).
  • Among certificates requiring at least one year of study in mechanic and repair technologies, the Washington State median for this category and cohort was $37,800. The highest median first-year earnings were received by Bates Technical College graduates ($43,800).

Associate's Degrees

  • The colleges sharing the highest median first-year earnings for this category of students were South Seattle College and North Seattle College ($47,500). The Washington state median first-year earnings for 2012 graduates with associate degrees was $35,500.
  • Health professionals and related programs had the highest median first-year earnings ($47,300). The lowest median first-year earnings were received by graduates with associate degrees in education ($25,100).  
  • For graduates with associate degrees in business, management, marketing and related support services, the 2012 graduates with the highest first-year median earnings in this category were graduates of Edmonds Community College ($43,000).
  • For 2012 graduates with associate degrees in health professions and related programs, the highest first-year earnings were received by Bellevue College graduates ($57,600).


Median first year earnings for 2012 graduates were $37,900 for bachelor’s degree holders, $56,600 for those with master’s degrees, $66,600 for graduates with doctorates applied to research or scholarship, and $74,900 for doctoral degree recipients in professional practice.

Among all the levels of education, from high school diploma up through doctorates, the largest gap between categories is the difference in median earnings for bachelor’s degree holders ($37,900) and master’s degree recipients ($56,600).


The highest median first-year earnings for 2012 graduates with bachelor’s degrees were received by graduates of the University of Washington ($41,400); the lowest, The Evergreen State College ($30,200).

The top 10 bachelor’s degree programs, by classification of instructional programs group. The highest median first-year earnings for this cohort were earned by graduates with computer and information sciences and support services ($69,400). The lowest median first-year earnings for 2012 graduates among this group of bachelor’s degrees were for psychology majors ($30,000).


  • The highest earnings for those with master’s degrees were from the University of Washington ($63,400). The lowest earnings were for Eastern Washington University graduates ($47,800).
  • The median first-year earning across all master’s degree holders was $56,600. Two fields (health professions & engineering) showed median first-year earnings above the statewide median for all master’s degrees.
  • The lowest median first-year earnings were received by those with master's degrees in multi/interdisciplinary studies ($40,800)
  • The lowest median first-year earnings were for research/scholarship doctorates in biological and biomedical sciences ($41,800) and the highest median earnings for first-year doctorates were for those with a research/scholarship degree in education ($101,400).  


Many prospective college students are still being fed the narrative that a four year degree is a sure-fire ticket to a high paying job, but with each new graduating class, that narrative loses credibility. Part of the problem is the lack of program-specific outcome data. There is a movement brewing at the national level to get more information into the hands of potential college students as they make decisions what credentials to pursue and where to do it.

Washington should be commended for putting together this dataset. The next step is 1) collecting more data, and 2) sharing the results with students and jobseekers so that it can become the basis for decision-making.