For more than a decade, the Guild’s salary and compensation reports have been recognized as the industry’s most trusted source of data on eLearning professionals’ salary and compensation. In our just-published 2017 eLearning Salary & Compensation Report, we introduced new tools and resources for getting started on your own salary research and implementing a salary strategy that works for you.

In this article, we take a deeper look at an important topic included in this year’s report: the relationship between salary, academic degrees, and professional certifications. In addition to a discussion of this key issue, we also present a simple tool to evaluate where you stand in terms of the costs and benefits associated with obtaining a degree or professional certification.

Salary benefits of an advanced degree

As we have seen from our year-over-year compensation data, the level of education one attains has a substantial impact on average base salary.

In our 2015 annual salary report, we saw that those holding a doctorate were paid an annual salary that averaged 23.7% higher than the (then) US national average of $81,079, regardless of industry or public/private sector. Compare this to 2016, when those holding doctorates were again paid the highest average salary: $90,847, or 13.05% higher than the 2016 US national average of $80,359. Those with master’s degrees averaged an annual salary of $81,041, which was only 0.85% more than the national average for that year.

In our 2017 report, education and salary comparison data (Figure 1) show an understandable progression in average salary from those in the aggregate education category (i.e., high school, some college, associate degree, trade school, and technical college) to those with doctorates.

Figure 1: Average US salary by education level

However, some questions still remain about these data. For example, it is not clear why those who fell into the 2017 aggregate category (i.e., high school, some college, associate degree, trade school, and technical college) earned an average salary that was only 4.01% lower than the average for those with bachelor’s degrees: $77,583 as compared to $80,827.

Equally interesting, we saw a similar anomaly in 2016, with those holding bachelor’s or associate degrees actually receiving lower average salaries ($78,655 and $73,089, respectively) than those with less than two years of higher education ($80,969). One positive note about the 2017 data: Holders of baccalaureate degrees have begun to catch up, with a 2017 average salary ($80,827) that is 2.76% higher than 2016.

This year, however, we looked deeper into the compensation benefits of educational credentials and widened our focus to include the salary impact of academic degrees plus professional certifications.

Salary benefits of a professional certification

Research indicates that professional certifications can have a positive impact on overall wages, even if you already have an academic degree. Regina Robo, writing for, notes, “Certifications and memberships in professional organizations or trade associations can have a positive effect on pay. However, if a job calls for a certification you don’t have, you might not get the job or your pay might be set at the lower end of the range. Some employers require employees without certifications to work toward them.” She goes on to advise that if you have a professional certification that is considered optional for your job, it can still serve to help you negotiate for a higher wage (see References).

In more specific terms, both the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) and Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certifications have proven their wage-earning value in recent research studies. According to a 2013 research report from PayScale (see References), “The data shows human resources professionals with the PHR and SPHR designations [move] through the career labyrinth faster and make more money than those who lack the certification. This pattern holds across all industries as well as the largest metropolitan areas.”

There seems to be less agreement about the market value of the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP) credential, offered by the Association for Talent Development, and the Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) credential, offered by the International Society for Performance Improvement. One can find positive reviews of these two certifications, as well as other, less positive opinions. (See the entire 2017 eLearning Salary and Compensation Report for these sources, as well as citations for all references.)

Figure 2 shows that the certification held by the most survey respondents is the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential, offered through the Project Management Institute (PMI). According to 2015 survey results published by PMI, the PMP certification provides a significant advantage when it comes to salary and earning potential (see References). Among PMI survey respondents, those with a PMP certification reported a higher salary (20% higher on average) than those without.

Types of professional certifications held by 2017 survey respondents

This year, in addition to the standard questions about education level, we asked survey respondents to tell us whether they had a professional certification and, if they did, which certification they held.

Of the 1,056 respondents who answered this item, 625 said they did not hold any of the certificate options that we listed in the survey. Of the 431 remaining respondents who held one of the credentials we listed, we reported only those certifications held by at least 20 respondents.

Of this smaller group (Figure 2), the largest number of respondents—68—held a PMP certification, followed by 62 who held a CPLP credential.

Figure 2: Professional certifications held by largest numbers of 2017 respondents

Comparison of US degree holders with and without professional certification

In comparing degree-and-certificate holders with those who hold degrees only (Table 1), we saw that those holding both a bachelor’s degree and a certification earned an average salary that was 7.81% higher than those holding only a bachelor’s degree.

Similarly, those holding both a master’s degree and a certification earned an average salary that was 2.88% higher than those holding only a master’s degree. Because of low response rates for other education levels and for those who said they held both a degree and a certification, we reported comparison data only for bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Table 1: Average salaries for US degree holders with and without certification

Without Certification With Certification Percent Difference With Certification

Bachelor’s degree




Master’s degree





It is clear that advanced degrees and professional certifications can enhance opportunities for eLearning professionals to advance in their field and earn an optimal wage. But how can they best use this information to help in individual career and compensation planning?

Taking action on 2017 education and certification data

In 2015, we introduced a new section of the annual report called “Taking Action on This Year’s Salary Data.” This was done in an effort to provide actionable, practical suggestions for utilizing the data provided in the report.

In 2016 and again this year, we updated this information with current references and additional guidance that should enable you to go beyond just reviewing the salary findings in this report and developing your own salary action plan. The first step in this process is a self-appraisal of your salary negotiation knowledge and skills, as well as a self-appraisal of your current compensation plans and goals.

You can utilize the education and professional certification data summarized in this article, supplemented with more information from the 2017 salary report. You can do this by using a tool to evaluate where you stand in terms of the costs and benefits associated with a degree or professional certification.

In this year’s report, we provide information and tools (“planning worksheets”) that enable you to calculate benchmark salaries for a number of different compensation planning scenarios. Instructions for filling out the worksheet can be found in Appendix 4 of the salary report, and are briefly summarized as follows:

  1. For each US compensation variable shown in Table 2 (below): Calculate the percentage change between the 2017 US average base salary ($83,139) and the salary average taken from the appropriate data source diagram, and insert the resulting percentage change (a positive amount for an increase, or a negative amount for a decrease) into that line item on the worksheet.
  2. Repeat for all compensation variables in Table 2 until the top section of the worksheet is complete.
  3. Calculate the total of all of the percentage change amounts (positive and negative values) and enter this percentage into the worksheet (Table 2). Percentage change values shown are examples only.

Following is a sample compensation scenario and planning worksheet (Table 2) that focuses on the costs and benefits of obtaining an advanced degree. This same planning scenario could also be modified to focus on the value of obtaining an advanced degree in addition to a professional certification.

Sample scenario: Instructional designer determining the value of a master’s degree

Renee is an instructional designer working for a federal government agency with 3,200 employees in California’s San Francisco Bay Area. She has eight years of experience in her current position and more than 10 years of experience in the eLearning field.

Her agency likes to promote people with good skills and master’s degrees. Therefore, Renee has worked hard to complete her bachelor’s degree recently and has already started saving money for a two-year master’s degree program.

However, Renee wonders if the salary difference is really worth all the extra effort and money she would need to invest. Her current salary is $87,452. Philip, her supervisor, has been encouraging her to move forward with her plans for graduate school and has explained that their company has a tuition reimbursement program that will cover part of Renee’s tuition and books. He is also willing to adjust her work schedule so that she has more flexibility to attend daytime classes.

Note: The figures referenced in the “Data Sources” column (Table 2 below) appear in the 2017 eLearning Salary and Compensation Report. Please see the report for the figures that provide these data, and use the figures to calculate your own values for the “Adjustments” column(s).

Table 2: Sample compensation planning worksheet

US Compensation Variables

Data Sources

Current Adjustments

Adjustments with Master’s Degree


  • San Jose/San Francisco/Oakland metro area

Figure 4: US average salary by employer metropolitan area




  • Federal government

Figure 6: US average salary by industry



Company size 

  • 3,200 employees

Figure 7: US average salary by company size



Number of people managed 

  • Individual contributor

Figure 8: US average salary by number of people managed



Education level 

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • Master’s degree

Figure 11: US average salary by education level



Job focus area 

  • Instructional design

Figure 13: US average salary by job focus area



Time in position 

  • 8 years

Figure 10: US average salary by time in position




Total percentage adjustments



Average US base salary
for 2017



Total dollar adjustments



Benchmark annual salary



Investing time, money, and effort in earning her master’s degree could enable Renee to negotiate a substantial increase of about 20% from her current salary of $87,452, to a benchmark salary (with master’s degree) of $105,179. In fact, this exercise reveals that she may be able to negotiate a raise even without earning another degree, as her current benchmark (with a bachelor’s degree) is actually calculated at $101,696—only 3.31% lower than the benchmark amount with a master’s degree.

However, a postgraduate degree would give Renee a number of other long-term advantages and opportunities that she might not have now. For example:

  • She may want to stay in the San Francisco metropolitan area, move elsewhere within California, or even look for other jobs in the Pacific Northwest. An advanced degree would give her additional job leverage over just a bachelor’s degree if she wants to relocate.
  • Having a graduate degree would likely increase her opportunities for higher-level jobs with people-management responsibilities that significantly impact base salary.
  • In addition, a graduate degree may increase Renee’s interest in moving into job focus areas with higher average base salaries than that of an instructional designer.
  • Finally, given our data on the wage benefits of combining a professional certification with an advanced degree, Renee may also want to consider obtaining a certification in conjunction with (or before) working on her master’s degree.


Obviously, there are many complex factors—in addition to education level and professional certification credentials—that come into play when benchmarking 2017 compensation scenarios.

Our goal in this article, as with the entire 2017 salary and compensation report, is to provide practical tools and current, comprehensive, and relevant information in order to help eLearning professionals build their knowledge and take effective action on their individual salary plans.


Project Management Institute (PMI). Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey, ninth edition. 2015.

Robo, Regina. “Eight Things That Can Boost Your Pay.”

Vipond, Sharon, and Temple Smolen. 2017 eLearning Salary & Compensation Report. The eLearning Guild, 2017.