More education doesn't always get you more money, report finds

  • Roughly 16% of high school grads earn more than many workers with a college degree.
  • How much you make comes down to your field of study, eventual occupation and other factors, including gender, a new report finds.

Getting a college degree typically pays, but it's not a guarantee.

Although workers with more education generally earn more, a good number of those without a college diploma are making more than college graduates.

Roughly 16% of high school grads earn more than half of workers with a bachelor's degree, according to a new report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Likewise, 28% of workers with an associate's degree earn more than half of workers with a bachelor's degree, and 36% of workers with a bachelor's degree earn more than half of workers with a master's degree.

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"More education doesn't always get you more money," said Anthony Carnevale, the center's director and lead author of the report.

"You can get less education and make more, it's true," he said. "You can get more education and make less; it all depends on your field of study."

Computer and mathematical positions, health practice and engineering are the highest-earning occupations at every education level, the report found. However, wage gaps persist across the board.

In all cases, men earn more than women — generally, women need one more degree to earn the same amount as their male counterparts, the report found — and Asian and white workers out-earn all other groups.

Still, "your education pathway pretty much determines your economic prospects," Carnevale said.

Finishing high school puts workers on track to earn a median of $1.6 million over their lifetimes, compared to $1.2 million if they had not graduated. 

Those with some college earn $1.9 million during their careers and associate's degree holders earn a median of $2 million over their lifetime.

A bachelor's degree holder earns a median of $2.8 million — 75% more than if they had only a high school diploma — although when broken down by gender, women with a BA have median lifetime earnings of $2.4 million, compared to $3.3 million for men.

Those with a master's degree earn a median of $3.2 million over their lifetimes, while doctoral degree holders earn $4 million and professional degree holders earn $4.7 million.

"The safest strategy is to keep going to school," Carnevale said.

At the same time, Covid and sky-high college costs are driving more students away from a four-year degree.

Interest in alternative programs spiked during the coronavirus crisis just as large employers, including Apple, Bank of America, Google and IBM, stopped requiring college degrees.

A recent survey of high school students found that the likelihood of attending a four-year school sank nearly 20% in less than a year — down to 53%, from 71%, according to ECMC Group, a nonprofit aimed at helping student borrowers. 

Almost one-third of high schoolers said the pandemic's financial impact made it less likely they will attend a four-year college, the report found. Students said they are putting more emphasis on career training and post-college employment.

More than half said they can achieve professional success with three years or less of college, and just one-fourth believe a four-year degree is the only route to a good job. ECMC Group polled more than 1,000 high school students three times over the past year.

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