According to a recent report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for the college Class of 2020 was $55,260 — 2.5% higher than that of the Class of 2019 ($53,889 ) and 8.5% higher than the Class of '18 ($50,944).
Among graduates who majored in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, average earnings were even higher.
"In some cases, salary increases most likely reflect these unique times," says Shawn VanDerziel, NACE executive director. "For example, the increased demand for nurses as front-line workers during the Covid-19 pandemic may have fueled the 2.1% increase in the average starting salary for registered nursing majors, from $57,416 for these graduates from the Class of 2019 to $58,626 for Class of 2020 registered nursing graduates."
"Technical majors typically are the highest paid as they are usually the highest in-demand," explains Andrea J. Koncz, NACE research manager. "Also, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the greater need for technology in the new 'virtual world' that we live and work, the computer-related majors account for 4 of the top 10 paying bachelor's degrees from the Class of 2020."
This trend has also been observed by other researchers.
A recent analysis of Department of Education data of 2.2 million college students who graduated in 2015 and 2016 and their early career earnings by public policy group Third Way found that STEM degrees provide some of the highest return on investment for graduates.
STEM degrees "tend to have the strongest job prospects, so they can start earning a lot of money right after graduating," Third Way senior fellow Michael Itzkowitz tells CNBC Make It.
Beyond highlighting the financial benefits of earning an advanced degree, the pandemic has also shed light on how educational opportunity impacts the physical health of Americans.
According to a March study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, life expectancy for the two-thirds of Americans without a college degree is declining — creating a growing gap in life expectancy between those with and without a secondary education.
"When you look at the data, you see life expectancy rising until 2012, and then it starts going down for people without a B.A.," Sir Angus Deaton, professor of economics at USC and Princeton University and one of the study's co-authors, previously told CNBC Make It. "The decrease in life expectancy is happening not to everybody, but to Americans who do not have a four-year college degree. There is a huge educational divide."