College Students Set Salary Expectations Too High: Survey

Median earnings are about 23% less than what most undergraduates expect
College graduates

Young adults starting their careers over the next few years may be in for a crash course in paycheck disappointment, as new research suggests many college students have unrealistic salary expectations. Median earnings are about 23% less than what most undergraduates expect Clever Real Estate, a platform for finding realtors, explored the disconnect between salary expectations and reality by surveying 1,000 college undergraduates on how much they expected to make when they started their careers. The researchers then used PayScale’s College Salary Report to cross-reference that data with median salaries for early-career employees.

Among the findings: Students graduating — whether with a bachelor’s or graduate degree — will start out making about 23% less on average than they expected.

The typical college undergraduate anticipates an annual income of $57,964 for their first year of work after graduation. Yet data suggests that many students will fall short of that goal, since the national median salary is $47,000 for graduates with a bachelor’s degree who have five years or less of experience.

And that gap between expectation and reality isn’t limited to the first year after school. The survey showed that the average undergraduate expects to make $95,400 after a decade in the workforce, while the median salary 10 years into one’s career is $80,450, roughly a $15,000 difference.

While both men and women expect to make more than the median early-career salary of $47,000, women are less optimistic about their future earning potential. One reason could be because of the gender pay gap, with women, on average, making only $0.79 for every dollar earned by their male counterparts, according to compensation research firm PayScale.

Among respondents to the Clever Real Estate survey, women across all majors expect to make $56,121 right after they graduate, while men expect to make $60,459 — a difference of $4,338.

That gap between men and women’s salary forecast is even larger for mid-career earnings, with women expecting to earn $10,836 less than men 10 years after obtaining a degree.

Business students may be among the most unrealistic when it comes to salary expectations, the study found. On average, business students expect to make $127,470 roughly 10 years into their career. However, the median mid-career salary for business professionals is $80,400 — a difference of $47,070.

While money isn’t the only important factor when choosing a career, it’s important to have an idea of your earning potential as you plan out your professional and financial life. If you expect to earn more money than you’re likely to make, you may miscalculate your ability to pay off student loans in a timely manner, for example, or achieve other financial goals such as buying a house.

By taking the time to research salary information for key jobs in your profession, you can move into your career with your eyes wide open. While you may, in fact, end up making more than the median salary, you’ll be better prepared in case those big paychecks take longer than you expected.

Tamara E. Holmes

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, DC-based writer who covers personal finance, entrepreneurship and careers.

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