How Much More Do College Graduates Earn Than Non-College Graduates?

Studies have proven time and again that college-educated workers often earn more than those with only high school diplomas. Learn more about this in this video.

Differences in Earnings

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) analyzes employee earnings data biennially according to education level. These findings indicate that workers with college degrees earn significantly more than those without; they also emphasize how lower education levels tend to correspond with higher unemployment rates. In 2015, adults with bachelor's degrees took home more than those with high school diplomas. Degree holders earned $48,500 a year, while diploma holders earned $23,900.

Over the past two decades, while college-educated workers' wages have increased, annual salaries for those with only a high school education have decreased. However, the gender of the degree holder, as well as the type of degree, also impacted earnings.

Let's look at some figures from the U.S. Bureau of Statistics in 2015 on median weekly earnings. For those with only a high school diploma, men earned $751 and women earned $578. With some college or an associate's degree, men earned $872 while women earned just $661. Men holding a bachelor's degree earned $1,249; with women, bachelor's degree holders bringing home $965. With a bachelor's degree or higher, men earned $1,385, with women earning $1049. Finally, men with an advanced degree earned $1,630 and women with an advanced degree earned $1,185.

Highest-Earning Occupations

Many white-collar occupations require applicants to hold at least a 4-year degree, and some require more advanced degrees. In a 2015-2016 report, PayScale.com provided salary information for top-paying occupations based on employees that held only bachelor's degrees. Let's look at the top 10 occupations and the entry-level median salary and mid-career median salary for each.

Occupation Entry-Level Median Salary Mid-Career Median Salary
Petroleum Engineering $101,000 $168,000
Nuclear Engineering $68,200 $121,000
Actuarial Mathematics $58,800 $119,000
Chemical Engineering $69,500 $118,000
Electronics and Communications Engineering $65,000 $116,000
Computer Science and Engineering $69,100 $115,000
Electrical and Computer Engineering $67,000 $114,000
Systems Engineering $67,100 $114,000
Aeronautical Engineering $65,100 $113,000
Computer Engineering $68,400 $113,000

Degree Cost vs. Payoff

Considering the high cost of a college education, potential students may question whether the expected earnings after graduation outweigh the possible debt incurred from student loans. In 2002, the Census Bureau looked at lifetime earnings of employees with bachelor's degrees and those without for 1999: non-degree holders could expect to earn 75% less than bachelor's degree holders, who could expect to earn $2.7 million over their lifetimes. However, since 1999, bachelor's degree holders can now expect to make 84% more than high school graduates.

In general, earning a college degree allows a person to have more earning potential overall, regardless of other factors.

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