What’s college worth?

Lifetime earnings for four-year college grads far exceed what workers with only high school diplomas earn - by $964,000.

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Since the 1960s, more than one-half of young people have gone on to attain some form of postsecondary education—either from a four-year college or university, a community college, or a technical/vocational school.

But amid increased press attention to college tuition costs and student debt, some critics now say that college attendance is often not worth the cost.

The data, however, prove otherwise.

In fact, here’s the difference in lifetime earnings between a worker with a bachelor’s degree and a worker with just a high school diploma: $964,000.

As Figure 1 shows, median lifetime earnings rise steadily for workers over time and with increasing educational attainment. Overall, the median lifetime earnings for all workers are $1.7 million, which is just under $42,000 per year ($20 per hour).

college earnings

Over a 40-year career, those with a high school diploma have annual earnings of $32,600 ($15.67 per hour), or about $1.3 million in lifetime earnings, while bachelor’s degree holders have median annual earnings of $56,700 ($27.26 per hour) or nearly $2.3 million over a lifetime.

Bachelor’s degree holders earn 31 percent more than workers with an Associate’s degree and 74 percent more than those with just a high school diploma.

Getting a bachelor’s degree also leads to better jobs and higher pay within the same kinds of jobs. For example, among male manufacturing sales representatives, those with a bachelor’s degree typically earn $76,600 while those with just a high school diploma earn $47,000. The main reason for this difference is that more-educated sales representatives likely work for bigger firms selling more expensive products.

Further, obtaining a bachelor’s is the gateway to entering and completing graduate education. About one-third of bachelor’s-degree holders continue on to obtain a graduate degree – which translates into the highest earnings of all.

Stephen Rose is a labor economist who consults and writes on economic issues in Washington, D.C. Previously, he has worked for Georgetown University, the Department of Labor, and Third Way. This short piece is Part One in a series.