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

Studies prove, time and again, that college-educated workers earn more than those with only a high school diploma. College graduates often enjoy additional benefits, including greater job opportunities and promotions. Though the proof for greater earning potential exists, some might wonder whether the cost of the education warrants the overall expense in the long run.

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College Graduate vs. Non-Graduate Earnings

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) analyzes employee earnings data biennially, according to education level. Findings indicate that workers with a college degree earn significantly more than those without. Since the mid-1980s, education has played a large part in potential wages, with bachelor's degree holders taking home an average of 66% more than those with only a high school diploma do. While college-educated workers' wages have increased over the past two decades, those with only a high school education have seen decreases in annual salaries in the same time period (nces.ed.gov).

The Cost of a Degree vs. the Potential 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 projected lifetime earnings of employees with a bachelor's degree and those without. Non-degree holders could expect to earn 75% less than a bachelor's degree holder, who could expect to earn $2.7 million over their lifetime.

Types of Degrees vs. Annual Salaries

The NCES' Digest of Education Statistics differentiates between median employee income based on level of education. In general, 4-year college graduates took home higher median salaries than those with a high school education. However, the type of college degree and gender of the degree holder also impacted earnings, as shown in the table below:

Type of Degree Annual Median Salary (2011) Gender
High school diploma $40,050 Men
High school diploma $30,010 Women
College with no degree $47,070 Men
College with no degree $34,590 Women
Associate degree $50,930 Men
Associate degree $39,290 Women
Bachelor's degree $66,200 Men
Bachelor's degree $49,110 Women
Master's degree $83,030 Men
Master's degree $60,300 Women
Professional degree $119,470 Men
Professional degree $80,720 Women
Doctorate degree $100,770 Men
Doctorate degree $77,460 Women

Occupations With the Highest Salaries

Many white-collar occupations require applicants to hold at least a 4-year degree, and some require more advanced degrees. In a 2013-2014 report, PayScale.com provided salary information for top-paying occupations based on employees that held only a bachelor's degree. All schools across the nation were included in the poll, and posted earnings incorporated full compensation, such as bonuses and other financial benefits. A sample of the top 10 highest-paying occupations by undergraduate major includes:

OccupationEntry-Level Median SalaryMid-Career Median Salary
Petroleum Engineering $103,000 $160,000
Actuarial Mathematics $58,700 $120,000
Nuclear Engineering $67,600 $117,000
Chemical Engineering $68,200 $115,000
Aerospace Engineering $62,800 $109,000
Computer Engineering $65,300 $106,000
Electrical Engineering $64,300 $106,000
Computer Science$59,800 $102,000
Physics $53,100 $101,000
Mechanical Engineering $60,900 $99,700
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