How To Calculate the Return on Investment For an Online Psychology Degree
You might think that return on investment sounds more like something you need to worry about if you are studying economics than psychology, but everybody has to think about money. You expect to get a lot more out of your education than you put in, and breaking ROI down by cost of tuition and the return you’ll get in the form of a salary or the fees you charge helps you better gauge exactly what you can expect that education to be worth when it starts paying off.
There is no way around the fact that college education is expensive today, and since working in psychology generally means getting not just one degree, but two or three, you had better be prepared to do some math along the way to understand where the break-even point is. Psychology is a well-respected profession that’s known to involve working in the service of others, but that doesn’t mean anybody expects you to do it without also enjoying a comfortable level of compensation. Getting a handle on ROI is simply part of understanding what kind of salary or fee structure it’s going to take to enjoy the quality of life you should reasonably expect from a career dedicated to helping others live their best lives.
At this phase of discovery, it’s pretty simple math, though the solution to this basic equation isn’t always easy to find …
Total Lifetime Compensation
– Total Cost of Education
Total Return on Investment
Part of the solution involves determining what your income might be if you didn’t make a big investment in your education. Assuming a basic level of income without that expensive college education, you can really only count the amount you earn over and above that base.
You will find psychology degrees available online at every level, from basic two-year associate programs to the PsyD and PhD programs required to become licensed and eligible for the highest positions in the profession, the ones that involve treating patients in clinical settings, diagnosing and counseling in an outpatient context or conducting important research.
Each of these degrees has a different level of cost associated with it… just as they all have different jobs and salary levels they can unlock.
So your ROI calculation will have to explore those different possibilities and ultimately line up with your unique career path, whether it involves getting in on the ground floor with a bachelor’s degree and a solid job in counseling, or if you are going all the way for the golden ring of a PsyD and a career as a full authority clinical or counseling psychologist.
Calculating Your College Costs When Becoming a Psychologist
In a field where a master’s is generally required for associate level licensing in states with a tiered licensing structure, and a doctorate is the universal requirement for full authority licensure, degree costs inevitably compound for most people in the field. Even if you are eventually going on to a more advanced level, your bachelor’s degree is the first thing you’ll need to account for in your total ROI calculation.
The longer your educational path, the longer you are out of the workforce, as well. In order to get a true picture of your college costs, you’ll have to weigh your eventual salary in the field against the years you spend not earning any salary at all.
In many cases, online options will cost less than traditional degree programs, putting you ahead of the game before you even start if you go that route. Although you always have to consider housing and other cost of living expenses, another advantage of online programs is that you can choose to live in places where those costs are reasonable, regardless of where the school itself is located. You can’t rightly expect to become a psychologist, however, without some in-person training and field work, and that’s as true of online programs as it is for traditional on-campus options. So if you were hesitant to go with a remote program because you thought it wouldn’t put you through the paces with the kind of real world learning you need to practice and master your psychological skills, think again.
Will Going with a State School Over a Private University Maximize ROI?
You’ll find that, at every level of education, private schools, whether designated as non-profit or for-profit, will be more costly than their public counterparts.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average annual cost at a public 4-year university is $20,050, while a private 4-year school costs $43,139 per year.
If the degree title emblazoned across the diploma is all the same: is there a good reason why you might spend more to get it from a private school?
It turns out that there could be. But it depends on the level of the degree and the specific university.
A study performed by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce analyzed the return on investment for 4,500 different American colleges and universities,both public and private, and both two-year and four-year institutions.
While it was true that, on average, private schools offered a higher ROI than public schools, the differences were most extreme at the longest interval measured: 40 years. Surprisingly, in the shorter term, in the 10-year window after graduation, community college and certificate programs were often the best investment. And even among the schools that dominate the 40 year rankings, you can find exceptions to the rule with some public schools high on the list, and private schools ranked much lower.
The lesson is that you’ll need to look carefully at the specific benefits that you think a private school can offer you in terms of ROI. The difference can be specific to the program, not the school, so you might find that a well-respected public university psychology doctorate comes out ahead of a mediocre private school PsyD… at a fraction of the cost.
If You Plan to Rely on Tuition Assistance Your ROI Calculations Will Change
Another major factor on the cost side of the calculation for your college degree will be the extent and type of tuition assistance that you might lean on in order to help pay for it.
You’ll be in the majority if you need to get a little outside help to pay your tuition and cost-of-living expenses during college. According to Forbes, more than half of all public school students and three-quarters of private school students take on loans to get through college. They graduate with an average of $20,000 – $25,000 in debt hanging over them as they enter the workforce… an amount that not only needs to be paid back out of your paychecks for years, but also accrues interest until you pay it off, making your educational costs that much more expensive.
Even though student loan interest rates and payment plans are generous, you need to factor them in to your ROI calculations, because they can become crushing. The average payment of $400 per paycheck may be well worth the trade for a licensed psychologist, pulling down the big bucks in private practice; it can also be the difference in being able to make the rent or not for a social services counselor paying off an expensive bachelor’s degree. You have to judge the benefits of the loans against how the job you’re actually going to end up with is going to pay off.
There is a flip side to loans in the tuition assistance world, though: scholarships or grants. These awards come with no obligation at all to be paid back, either through a major student assistance program like the Federal Pell grant system, or individual scholarships offered through your school or other organizations. While loans actually pile more debt onto the investment side of your equation, grants subtract it—they reduce what you have to pay out of pocket, so that your returns from salary are that much more valuable.
And if you are lucky, you can get the best of both worlds through a loan forgiveness program, such as the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. If you take a job at a qualifying non-profit or government agency—not unlikely for a psychology graduate—you may be forgiven from your obligation to pay off the entirety of your direct student loans. The program kicks in only after you’ve made at least 120 payments, but it offers a way to get a large part of your loans taken off the ledger even if you didn’t initially qualify for scholarships or grants.
The Return on Investment for a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
For all practical purposes, the start of your calculations for return on investment will be in estimating the costs of earning a four-year bachelor’s degree in psychology.
In 2018 the average total cost for a bachelor’s degree in American colleges came to $109,428.
That’s because just about every job in the field has that level of education as a minimum to get in the door… whether it’s licensing requirements for counseling positions, just the basic corporate requirement that most professional applicants hold a college degree, or a foundation for graduate school, a bachelor’s is where it starts.
Costs for Earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
Of course, as noted earlier, there can be big differences in those costs between public and private schools. But geography is another big factor… both in terms of whether or not you qualify for low in-state tuition rates and the general cost of college in your region.
This is another aspect where online programs often come with advantages, however… many offer a flat rate for tuition that are in line with in-state rates, regardless of your actual location.
According to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard site, these are some of the typical total annual costs of attendance at a variety of schools around the country (includes fees, books, and board, but with the average annual student aid award subtracted from the total for each school):
- University of California – Berkeley (public) – $14,846
- Stanford – Stanford (private) – $12,265
- Florida State University – Tallahassee (public) – $10,744
- Rollins College – Winter Park (private) – $27,537
- Georgia State University – Atlanta (public) – $14,519
- Emory University – Atlanta (private) – $24,593
- Illinois State University – Normal (public) – $21,301
- Wheaton College – Wheaton (private) – $26,180
- Fort Hays State University – Hays (public) – $12,340
- Friends University – Wichita (private) – $18,065
- New York
- Binghamton University – Vestal (public) – $18,958
- Cornell – Ithaca (private) – $30,494
- University of Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh (public) – $28,758
- University of Pennsylvania – Philadelphia (private) – $25,033
- University of Texas – Austin (public) – $16,505
- Trinity University – San Antonio (private) – $23,016
- Western Washington University – Bellingham (public) – $16,439
- Seattle Pacific University – Seattle (private) – $28,400
Salaries for Bachelor’s in Psychology Graduates
Psychology is actually one of the most versatile majors you can take at the bachelor’s level, with applications running in industries as diverse as marketing, management, healthcare, and criminal justice. According to the APA, 20 percent of psychology bachelor’s degree holders work in sales, for instance, the largest single sector. But it also equips you to work in roles more traditionally associated with psychology, like substance abuse and behavioral counseling.
This means that you have a very wide range of possible salaries to think about, depending entirely on the career path you plan to go down. In addition to the various differences between pay rates in each of those industries, you’ll find, just like with tuition rates, a real geographic difference in what you can earn in different parts of the country with the exact same job titles.
For example, these are the median salary levels for some jobs you can get into with a psychology degree for the same states we listed above with tuition rate examples:
- Social Worker – $71,020
- Market research analyst – $79,070
- Substance abuse counselor – $54,580
- Social Worker – $51,980
- Market research analyst – $61,700
- Substance abuse counselor – $44,820
- Social Worker – $73,830
- Market research analyst – $69,290
- Substance abuse counselor – $47,050
- Social Worker – $65,830
- Market research analyst – $64,910
- Substance abuse counselor – $47,320
- Social Worker – $64,950
- Market research analyst – $66,450
- Substance abuse counselor – $44,850
- New York
- Social Worker – $67,580
- Market research analyst – $78,240
- Substance abuse counselor – $54,280
- Social Worker – $58,180
- Market research analyst – $69,710
- Substance abuse counselor – $47,480
- Social Worker – $60,240
- Market research analyst – $74,190
- Substance abuse counselor – $49,330
- Social Worker – $73,160
- Market research analyst – $88,290
- Substance abuse counselor – $52,200
Salary is not the only measurable benefit that comes with professional positions, however. You’ll also need to weigh healthcare and other kinds of non-cash compensation to get a true picture of your returns. According to Forbes, employer-subsidized healthcare coverage can be worth as much as $5,000 to $30,000 annually depending on the plan and your family health needs. There is also life insurance, tuition reimbursement, and other perks that may come with some positions, all of which you will have to weigh against your college costs to get a true picture of value.
What About Returns On an Associate Degree in Psychology?
Although it’s unusual, it’s possible to take your first step into the job market with only an associate degree or certificate. An education at this level can land you in entry-level jobs like these:
According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), the average cost of a two-year associate program, in 2018 was nearly $22,000 on average. That’s versus two years of a bachelor’s degree, which rings in at an average of just about $50,000.
But there is a catch: you don’t actually need an associate to get those jobs. They are usually open to anyone with a high school diploma or GED. So if that is all you plan to do, your ROI is actually negative—you spent money you didn’t need to spend to get the job.
Associate degrees are more often obtained as a steppingstone to a bachelor’s. If you plan ahead, you can earn your associate at a school that has a transfer agreement with a four-year university that will allow you to count your community college credits toward the bachelor’s degree you eventually earn.
The Return on Investment You Can Expect with a Master’s Degree in Psychology
Although you can find some states and types of counseling jobs that only require a bachelor’s degree in psychology to get into, more often you’ll need to go on to earn at least a master’s degree in the field to get to this level of practice. On the other hand, you’ll also find much higher salaries available in most fields once you have one of these degrees under your belt.
And in some cases, you’ll be picking up a master’s degree on your way to earning a doctorate… where the real money happens.
Costs for Master’s Degree Programs in Psychology
Although it’s only another two years of study (years during which you might still not be earning any income, remember!), the tuition costs are generally higher for studies at these advanced levels.
NCES statistics for 2018 show that private schools charge an average of $25,442 per year for graduate school while public schools, for in-state students, charge far less at just $11,926.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has gone further than NCES in establishing costs specific to psychology masters programs. As of 2016, they came up with the following median annual tuition rates at different types of institutions:
Although they track average costs between public and private schools, there is no state-by-state breakdown as there is for undergraduate programs. Grad schools are often more distinctive than undergraduate programs, with specializations and reputations that can matter a lot to your personal career goals, so it makes more sense to look at them on a case-by-case basis than just a regional cross section.
Salaries for Master’s Degree Holders in Psychology
Regional salaries, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are much easier to pin down. As you can see, a master’s degree can unlock six figure salaries in some positions and in some states… but it isn’t a universal achievement, so you need to carefully weigh your educational costs against where you plan to practice and the role you’ll be working in as a way to balance your return on investment.
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $51,950
- School and Career Counselor – $78,250
- Sociologist – $98,890
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $46,330
- School and Career Counselor – $50,200
- Sociologist – $65,580
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $58,840
- School and Career Counselor – $57,800
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $69,900
- School and Career Counselor – $56,650
- Sociologist – $96,600
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $43,130
- School and Career Counselor – $52,200
- New York
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $49,420
- School and Career Counselor – $68,890
- Sociologist – $82,510
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $62,140
- School and Career Counselor – $63,680
- Sociologist – $127,020
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $50,840
- School and Career Counselor – $60,470
- Marriage and Family Therapist – $49,700
- School and Career Counselor – $65,550
- Sociologist – $72,590
Return on Investment for Doctoral Degrees in Psychology
The pinnacle of the profession and practice of psychology rests on those individuals who go all the way to the terminal degree in the field: a doctorate in psychology.
Whether it’s the research-focused PhD or a practice-focused PsyD, a doctorate is the path to practice as a full authority psychologist in clinical and outpatient settings. A doctorate program involves an additional four to six years of full-time study… and some PhDs can take as long as seven year to get through. And all those extra years in school come with a hefty price tag attached.
The Costs of Earning a Doctoral Degree in Psychology
How high is the cost of getting a doctorate in psychology? The APA found that the annual tuition rates for doctoral programs come in well above those for master’s degrees:
Those rates have been steadily rising, as well, with in-state tuition rising by a whopping 50 percent between 2009 and 2015. It’s no surprise that the organization found that 90 percent of PsyD students graduated with student debt. That has important implications for how interest payments will impact your long-term pay-down of that debt and how much it will eat into your salary over the course of your career.
The Salary You Can Expect with a PhD or PsyD Will Offset High Tuition Costs
The salaries you can earn with a doctorate hanging on your wall can be well-worth the costs, however.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2019, the median annual salary for psychologists in the United States was $80,370.
That rate will be low for many doctorate-holding psychologists, however, since it includes school psychologists, who may be licensed with only a master’s degree in many states. Instead, looking at the BLS breakdown by organization and industry can offer a better estimate of average salaries:
Finally, the APA conducts their own salary survey among members, the most recent having been completed in 2016. They found that a PhD could be worth as much as $10,000 more per year than a PsyD… although the PhD also takes longer to earn. They also show breakdowns of average salaries by region and specialization:
As you can see, not all psychologist positions are created equal, with as much as a $77,000 difference between some specializations in terms of annual salary. When you are paying the same amount for a degree to get into either of those, it’s clear which one holds the highest ROI.
But most psychologists get into the profession for reasons other than just money. I/O psychology is among the best compensated roles, but in terms of providing direct assistance to people in need, the level of job satisfaction isn’t going to be anywhere near what it would be working as a counseling or clinical psychologist.
You’ll have to weigh your desire for a high salary in the field against the reasons you decided to get into psychology in the first place. But once you understand the pay rates in your chosen specialization in the field, you can also do a better job of picking the right doctoral program to make sure your education pays off for you in the long run.
Salary data published by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2019. Figures are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2021.
(Tuition data provided by College Scorecard and the National Center for Education Statistics, services of the U.S. Department of Education.)