More than half of people in San Francisco county have college degrees, though you’d never believe it if you try to get on the Embarcadero Freeway from 16th Street on a Friday. The Chronicle of Higher Education offers a great interactive map of the U.S., broken down by county, of people with at least a BA. At 51% percent, SF county about doubles the national average of 27.5%.
But the question is: have all those fraternity rushes and caffeine soaked cramming sessions translated into cold, hard cash? Suprisingly, yes. San Francisco, San Mateo, and surrounding counties have a median income of $60,000 or more, far above the national average household income of $49,000. Interesting side note: $49K per house (adjusted for inflation) is now the lowest it’s been since 1996.
This map is a great time sink if you are curious about education and income. For example, you will notice that higher percentages of degrees in a population generally translate into higher median incomes. Richer counties are also generally near major universities, like the Bay Area, Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Madison, WI, and Boulder, CO.
You might wonder why these high income counties are clustered around university towns. Because people come from all over the country to go to college and scatter again after graduation, the median incomes seems like they should be more evenly spread across the country. But according to Forbes magazine’s list of the nation’s richest communities, university towns tend to hold onto wealth because of the large number of government employees in these areas. Also, successful startups like Google tend to locate where there is a good supply of highly educated university students who will work for popcorn and beer.
Another research rabbit hole you can go down is the county of Elko, in the northeast corner of Nevada, where only 15% of the population has a college degree but incomes are spiking over $100,000. What is the secret of this wealthy community hidden in the mountains of nowhere? It turns out it really is what you think. Elko leads the nation in gold mining, with another boom cycle that took off in 2009.
But if you don’t want sift dirt all day in a freezing mountain stream with a mule and a tin of boiled beans, your best shot at making a living is higher education. According to Census Bureau data, here are average earnings by degree:
- Advanced degrees: $83, 144
- Bachelor’s only: $58,613
- High school diploma: $31,283
Of course, this doesn’t include considerations of debt, which some are predicting will be the next debt crisis on par with the collapse of housing values. This weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that student loan debt just hit $1 trillion. This is affecting both students, who are now more reluctant to make big purchases or are unable to do so due to back credit, and parents who dipped into nest eggs and saw their retirement accounts vanish due to falling home values.
Overall, people with a college education bring in an average of $650,000 more over a lifetime than those with just a high school. Reducing student debt, perhaps by working for a startup for popcorn and beer, appears to be the critical factor in success after graduation.