Is a college degree really worth $1 million?

By Anne Fisher, contributor


FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I bet I'm not the only reader wondering about this, so I hope you can give me some advice. My 17-year-old son, starting his senior year in high school, is very bright but not a good student. He just doesn't enjoy learning in a classroom setting, or excel at taking written tests.

However, he's extremely good at figuring out how things work and fixing them (he's the unofficial auto mechanic and computer geek for our entire neighborhood) and he's thinking that, instead of going to college, he'd like to get a job that would train him to develop those kinds of skills.

Okay, but I worry about his earning power over time: I've heard that college grads earn an average of $1 million more, over their lifetime, than people with a high school diploma. So will he be making a big mistake by skipping college? --Maryland Mom

Dear M.M.: Maybe, maybe not. With the cost of a four-year degree constantly rising, researchers at Seattle-based PayScale.com recently set out to analyze exactly what return on investment a graduate is likely to get for his or her tuition. The results are fascinating: It turns out that "at many schools, investing in college costs, even at full price [without financial aid], has been competitive versus getting a job out of high school and putting the money in the stock market or Treasury bonds," the report says.

Talkback: Do you think a college degree pays off? Did yours? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

However, that magical and much-quoted $1 million earnings premium, which originated with the Bureau of Labor Statistics some years ago, is apparently the exception rather than the rule. According to PayScale's analysis, out of 554 four-year schools, only 40 (36 private colleges and 4 state universities) -- or fewer than 10% -- have delivered a net return on investment of $1 million or more, over the course of grads' careers, than a high school diploma alone.

Now, about your question: Al Lee, Ph.D., PayScale's director of quantitative analysis, dug into the firm's vast database of salary information and came up with a list of 6 jobs where top performers can earn $100,000 or more per year without first going to college.

"All of these jobs require a lot of on-the-job training and experience to get to high levels of pay," he notes. "But, if you're the kind of person who can't stand to sit in a classroom, they may be a great way to get there."

All of these jobs are fairly recession-proof as well, Lee notes. "They all involve activities that have to get done no matter what the economic conditions at any given time," he says. "And they come with a regular paycheck, so you can apply technical skills without the risk of running your own business."

All six also share one other appealing characteristic: They can't be outsourced. "As globalization rolls on, there is a lot to be said for any job that has to be done by a person working in a particular physical location," Lee says. He has a point there.

Talkback: Do you think a college degree pays off? Did yours? If you didn't go to college, do you wish you had -- or have you built a successful career without a degree? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page