Want to make big bucks out of college or trade schools? Study nursing.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Pay has risen as health care has become a larger part of the U.S. economy, according to a trove of recently released federal data on graduate earnings and debt from which The Inquirer has built an extensive online search tool.

At 10 of 11 Pennsylvania public colleges with nursing programs, nursing graduates had the highest median earnings right out of college.

And among more than 70 nursing bachelor programs in the region, graduates of 17 of those programs took home median earnings of at least $70,000 a year, more than double the $34,700 median for all just-graduated bachelors.

The 13 top-paying undergraduate certificate programs or associate’s degrees at community colleges were all nursing. For the analysis, The Inquirer looked at academic programs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Kathryn Bowles got her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Edinboro University in 1978, one of the more affordable state schools, a master’s from Villanova in 1990, and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. Those set her on a course to become a successful entrepreneur and professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, where she holds the van Ameringen Chair in Nursing Excellence.

“A bachelor of science sets the foundation for a myriad of directions.” she said. “There are multiple opportunities in addition to hospital nursing. You can start a business, be an entrepreneur, you can do research or go into the pharmaceutical or insurance industry, or even health-care law.”

Her daughter-in-law is now a nurse-lawyer, earning a B.S. in nursing at Penn and a law degree from Pepperdine. Her son is a nurse anesthetist, a top-paying nursing specialty, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Grads earn a median of $174,790 a year.

With the price of college soaring along with student debt, many students now find they must plan for what their earnings prospects will be after graduation.

Health care – now accounting for about 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product, or GDP – is now an industrial-sized employer, like General Motors and other automakers in the mid-20th century.

Drexel University – popular for decades for its engineering and business co-op programs – graduates more nursing bachelors than any other academic college on its campus. And that’s been true since 2013, said Kymberlee Montgomery, Drexel’s senior associate dean of nursing and student affairs. Even inside Drexel, the nursing boom has gone largely unnoticed because “nursing is not a self-promoter," she said.

What’s true at Drexel is also true for the region. Nursing represents the largest bachelor’s program in the tri-state region, Department of Education data show. The other largest nursing programs include Wilmington University, Thomas Edison State University, Rutgers University-New Brunswick, and Thomas Jefferson University.

And the growth has occurred so quickly that Drexel’s nursing program’s main classrooms aren’t even based on its main campus in West Philadelphia, but are instead in Center City.

Genesis Sanchez, 23, a senior Drexel nursing student from Mayfair, said that there were “easily” 200 nursing students in required courses as freshmen, such as anatomy or psychology. But the Drexel nursing classes in later years are much smaller as students drop out due to the difficult coursework. Sanchez, who is is graduating in June, has had co-ops at CHOP, Pennsylvania Hospital, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Jasmine Jones, also 23, a senior and fifth-year nursing major who was raised in Linden, N.J., said, "When I was talking to people in high school, they really didn’t know about Drexel.”

Jones defrayed some of the Drexel costs with scholarships and contributions from her family and will graduate owing $40,000 to $50,000. "Going to Drexel, there was going to be debt,” Jones said. “The reason I chose nursing over communications was because I knew it was expensive and I knew I would have debt, and I needed a job that was going to pay so that I could pay my bills.”

Jones is considering new “residency programs” for nursing graduates to enter specialties such as the ICU – a trend in the field, Jones said.

Drexel nursing students shuttle between West Philadelphia and Center City – not ideal, Drexel officials acknowledge. But that will change.

Construction was to begin this year on a 13-floor building for classes, offices and labs on the Drexel campus for the nursing and health professions programs. The Drexel Academic Tower “will be one of our taller buildings and it will anchor the western edge of the Drexel campus,” said Donald Moore, the university’s vice president for real estate and facilities.

Keep Down the Debt

Here’s an important point: Some high-paying degrees still confer more debt than others, according to a recent Georgetown University study that looked at college investment returns on investment. It’s key to choose those that offer similar degrees and less borrowing.

Seton Hall master’s graduates in nursing leave the program with a median of more than $81,000 in debt, earning $90,000 upon graduation. That’s an extremely high ratio of debt-to-income that could be hard for graduates to pay back.

A nursing master’s graduate from St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., earns more than $165,000, but leaves with a whopping $114,000 in median debt.

For those earning advanced degrees, such as a master’s in nursing, “many times you graduate with a B.S. and you can work in a hospital and then the employer pays for your master’s.

"That’s how nurses can avoid debt,” said Bowles. To be a nurse scientist, a doctorate is often covered by fellowships or the school through research or teaching assistant positions. Bowles went on to co-found RightCare Solutions in 2012 by leveraging her nursing and research to create a system to reduce the need for hospital readmission. RightCare was acquired by NaviHealth in 2015.

“Villanova and Penn have opportunities for student scholarships, but you don’t know until you get in the door,” said Melissa O’Connor, associate professor of nursing at Villanova, and chair of the board of trustees of Visiting Nurse Association of Greater Philadelphia.

Pay attention to the school’s state board/licensing exam pass rate, O’Connor said.

“Don’t go to a four-year college for nursing that doesn’t have a high pass rate” for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) test. Villanova’s is 96.7%, she said. “It should be in the 90s,” at least. “If you don’t pass, what’s the sense of getting the degree?”