Bachelor’s, Associates, or Certificate: Which Earns the Most?
by Taylor Slattery | April 4, 2023
For those taking the first steps toward embarking on a journey of creative education, one key factor to take into account when considering which program to pursue is potential earnings. Like any other industry, creative careers follow a similar hierarchical structure. Education plays a factor in determining not only which rung you start out on, but also, to a degree, how far you can climb, with non-design-specific skills like communication and management contributing as well.
While certificates and associate’s degrees can be great tools for helping new designers to get their foot in the door with certain entry-level positions, many may still wonder if there’s an overall difference in average salary between designers with a bachelor’s degree compared to those with an associate’s degree or a certificate.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while a bachelor’s degree may not be required by some employers, it is still preferred by many and makes up the most common level of education among those applying for entry-level positions.
Graphic design roles span a wide range of industries and this is reflected by the wide range of salaries reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the lower end, salaries in the bottom 10% dipped below $31,310 while the top 10% exceeded $98,260, with a median wage of $50,710. There are a number of factors that contribute to this large discrepancy in wage, such as location, industry, and experience level.
Even among entry-level graphic design roles, expectations of the applicants can vary widely. In-house graphic designers at smaller, local companies like sign shops, car dealerships, or churches may have less-strict educational requirements in order to cast a wider net to account for the smaller talent pool available to them. With these lower expectations, however, typically comes a lower salary and fewer benefits. Larger, national and international companies, on the other hand, will have both higher starting salaries and higher expectations of their applicants in regard to education and responsibilities.
This brings us to another important, but often neglected variable to consider when job hunting: experience. By experience, I don’t mean the type of experience required to get started at a company, but rather the new skills you’ll leave with when it’s time to move on. When considering your options for employment, it’s good practice to look further down the line and examine the ways in which this immediate role might better equip you to fulfill your larger, long-term goals. Doing so can help you to better weigh the pros and cons not only when deciding which types of jobs to pursue but which sort of educational program might best fit your goals.
You may be willing to accept a lower salary as long as it means you’re able to get your foot in the door and start earning money doing something you love. In the case that a role with a lower salary will arm you with the skills and connections that will ultimately get you closer to accomplishing your long-term goals, this might be true. However, there are many entry-level graphic designer roles at companies with no room for upward mobility that provide little in the way of experience that can be leveraged into a higher-paying role elsewhere should you eventually decide that you’d like to earn more money.
When it comes to upward mobility, companies with entry-level roles that require bachelor’s degrees will typically have larger creative teams and feature more traditional hierarchies with senior designers, art directors, and creative director roles to grow into. Larger teams mean more opportunity to network and larger companies will typically offer the kinds of work experience that can more easily translate into other roles when it comes time to start another job hunt.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.