How Big is Your Paycheck?

A key component of working with students for whom academic success is merely hypothetical is to encourage and support their identification of personal goals.  An activity I use with my classes to address this is called “How Big is Your Paycheck?”  Students are asked to identify career goals and then calculate how much education they’ll need to reach them.  Taking the activity one step further, we calculate how much additional money they can expect to earn as a result of meeting their educational and career goals.  The final step in the activity is to determine how much payback they can expect in terms of dollars earned for each day of school they attend.  I call this final number their “paycheck.”

According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, an adult with no high school diploma can expect to earn about $23,500 per year. With a high school diploma, those earnings rise to more than $33,000.  For an associate degree, it is nearly $40,000, and for a bachelor’s degree nearly $55,000.  This varies, of course, with region of the U.S. and the specific career field.  But it’s a good way to reinforce the fact that staying in school provides real earning potential.

For example, a sophomore student who hopes to become a physical therapy assistant will need three years to get a high school diploma before two years at the local community college for the required associate degree.  If she achieves that goal, she can expect to receive $16,500 more per year for the duration of her career.  Assuming a 30-year career, this translates to $1.2 million over her lifetime, and $495,000 more than a high school dropout.  When she calculates how many days of school she has yet to complete (things get a little more complicated here, but we go through it together), she sees that she is “earning” approximately $750 per day that she continues to come to school.   This becomes her paycheck.  We celebrate each student’s potential and create colorful paychecks for the class bulletin board.  In later activities, we explore setting and reaching goals and creating personal budgets so that students see what kind of lifestyle their earnings will buy them.

For teen moms, whose likelihood of dropping out of school is greater than that of the average student, it’s an eye opener.  According to a recent CDC report, only about 50% of teen moms will get a high school diploma before age 22.  Depending on the way the figures are calculated, it’s estimated that about 75-80% of their peers will.

The message: Education is important and pays big dividends.  I know my students have heard this, but our activity illustrates the point more concretely.  I emphasize to students that there are also valuable abstract benefits that go along with educational and career success, like self-satisfaction.  In the process, students see how valuable it is to complete an education, and I learn more about my students’ goals so I can engineer lessons to better support them.  The payback is huge.

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