This Is the Worst State in America for Graduate Degrees and Pay Raises

Sad college grad sitting on a bench in park
Graduate degrees don’t always pay off. |

You’re probably aware a graduate degree will increase your salary. But did you know where you live could devalue it?

In fact, a new Student Loan Hero study revealed that not all states are friendly to seasoned scholars. You might expect a 42% raise after earning your graduate degree in California, for example, but only a 21% jump in Louisiana.

After looking at the top 10 states for graduate degree holders, let’s examine the bottom 10.

To identify the states where a graduate degree is most valuable, our study compares the difference in wages between workers with a bachelor’s degree and those with a graduate degree, in real dollars and as a percentage.

The two factors are equally weighted for every state in the union, plus the District of Columbia.

Six of the lowest ranking 10 states are in one region. The Midwest is also represented twice. Let’s take a quick look at the 10 states where going to college has a weaker return on investment for grad school alumni.

10. Arizona

  • Median graduate degree salary: $62,737
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 25.79%

Arizona was the lowest-ranking Western state in our complete rankings. The state’s graduate school alumni could expect a salary that’s more than 10% lower than the national median ($69,240). This median income is adjusted for inflation since the U.S. Census Bureau reported it in 2015.

If you’re just beginning your secondary education tenure, consider that Arizona offers the country’s sixth best value on community college. The state saves students an average of $16,698 on a four-year degree if they start out at a two-year school.

9. Oklahoma

Oklahoma v Kansas football
The pay isn’t substantial for those with graduate degrees in the Sooner State. | Jamie Squire/Getty Images
  • Median graduate degree salary: $56,083
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 26.73%

The Sooner State is the only state among our bottom 10 to offer a pay raise higher than 26% for graduate degree holders. Still, upon graduation, you might want to leave sooner rather than later.

8. Kansas

Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks pumps up the crowd.
Kansas might not pay grads that well, but it’s easier than some other states to pay off student debt. | Jamie Squire/Getty Images
  • Median graduate degree salary: $59,512
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 25.91%

Aside from Arizona, Kansas is the only other state to offer at least a $12,000 salary jump after earning your graduate degree.

If you’re already a graduate student in Kansas, there’s another silver lining. You live in one of three states where it’s easier to pay off student loans. The state created Rural Opportunity Zones, comprising 77 counties that offer to pay up to $15,000 on your loans.

7. South Dakota

sign board saying ' South Dakota'
South Dakota has the lowest salaries for graduates. |
  • Median graduate degree salary: $52,750
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 25.85%

It’s hard to embellish the stark truth of South Dakota’s average salaries. It offers the lowest for both undergraduates ($41,914) and grads ($52,750) in the entire U.S.

For graduate students already enrolled and planning to stick around these parts, look on the bright side: Both Dakotas cracked our top 10 list of the best states to raise a family.

6. Mississippi

Jackson, Mississippi
Pay might not be high in Mississippi, but it does have a low cost of living. |
  • Median graduate degree salary: $53,299
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 25.67%

Every state below Mississippi on this list has less than a 24% difference between the salaries of its four-year graduates and its graduate degree holders. Although the state’s salaries fall well short of the national medians, at least it gives postgraduate students a 25.67% pay bump.

Also on the positive side, Mississippi won’t break your wallet. It recorded the country’s lowest cost of living, according to GOBankingRates.

5. Georgia

Downtown of Athens
Georgia schools rank high. |
  • Median graduate degree salary: $63,557
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 22.77%

Georgia pays its graduate degree holders a higher salary than any of the other states on this list. Still, the relatively minimal bump in pay might push you to consider moving elsewhere.

That’s despite the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University cracking U.S. News & World Report’s top 10 and top 20 for the best engineering and business programs, respectively.

To be fair, we did find in another recent study that Georgia provides the fifth best return on investment for undergraduate students seeking a bachelor’s degree. In fact, Georgia workers who attain a bachelor’s degree earn 90% more than those who only attend high school. At least in this state, it pays to quit school while you’re ahead.

4. South Carolina

Columbia, South Carolina, USA
South Carolina fell far below North Carolina on the list. | Pavone
  • Median graduate degree salary: $55,732
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 23.11%

Talk about a rivalry without competition: South Carolina ranked No. 48 out of 51 states (plus D.C.) for grad students. Its neighbor North Carolina checked in at No. 32.

3. Kentucky

John Wall #11 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates
Those with graduate degrees in Kentucky earn more than $10,000 less than the national average. | Andy Lyons/Getty Images
  • Median graduate degree salary: $56,159
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 22.55%

Kentucky residents might be better off leaving the state if they have dreams of attending grad school. After all, the Bluegrass State’s brightest will earn a median salary of $56,159. That pales in comparison to the national median of $69,240.

2. Alabama

Welcome to Alabama road sign on US-84 near Gordon
The pay bump for a graduate degree in Alabama isn’t substantial. |
  • Median graduate degree salary: $58,553
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 21.76%

Although Alabama’s most educated professionals earn more on average than their peers in five states on this list, that alone wasn’t enough to keep the state out of the bottom two.

1. Louisiana

Dusk falls over Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, 11 July 2006, almost one year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. For tourists strolling through the French Quarter it's easy to forget that Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans a year ago. The beignets are fresh, trinkets and designer clothes are artfully arranged in shop windows, and hurricanes are spinning in the bars on Bourbon Street. But while the music, food and good times have come back, the crowds have not and the city is struggling to make ends meet while its main industry remains crippled. With more than 10 million visitors a year, tourism was once a 5.5 billion dollar industry in New Orleans, accounting for 40 percent of the city's tax revenues and employing 85,000 people. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Those in Louisiana with a graduate degree earn almost 30% less than the top state on the list. | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
  • Median graduate degree salary: $59,096
  • Pay raise for earning a graduate degree: 21.11%

The worst of five Deep South states in our bottom 10, Louisiana is the worst state in the union for graduate school alumni in the workforce.

To put it perspective, Louisiana’s most educated professionals earn 28% less in salary than California’s. That’s a difference of $23,203 between the best- and worst-ranked states in our study.

What this study means for you

grads holding degrees
These states might offer lower salaries, but the cost of living might be lower, too. |

Many of the 10 worst states to be a graduate student are rural and don’t have large metropolises. But they do have a relatively lower cost of living. So while your salary might not be as high in these states, you could still be pocketing a lot of money.

Maybe your lower cost of living makes this discussion moot. Maybe your hands are tied by a job specialty or field that only operates out of one state or region. If there isn’t a solid reason like this keeping you in a low-paying state, it might be worth your while to test your market value elsewhere. That’s if you’ve graduated already.

If, on the other hand, you’re considering applying to graduate school, this study represents one more factor you might want to consider. Going to school in one of these states undercuts your earning potential. You should especially be wary of paying out-of-state tuition in one of these 10 states. You might have other reasons to skip graduate school altogether.

If you’re already enrolled at a graduate school in one of our bottom 10 states, don’t fill yourself with regret. Maybe staying close to home and scoring in-state tuition was well worth this dip in potential postgraduate salary.

Plus, once you complete your graduate program, you could always pack up and move. Maybe even move to a state without income tax.

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