Median lifetime earnings rise with each additional level of education, report finds

Dive Brief: 

  • Workers’ median earnings rise with each additional level of education, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, bolstering previous research showing degrees tend to pay off in the job market. 
  • Those with less than a high school diploma earned an average of $1.2 million during their lifetimes, compared to $2.8 million for workers with bachelor’s degrees and $4.7 million for workers with professional degrees. 
  • However, substantial variation within each category means some workers with less education can earn more than workers with more education. Typically these differences are due to field of study and occupation. 

Dive Insight: 

Georgetown CEW’s report underscores previous data showing a college degree typically leads to greater earnings. Those with bachelor’s degrees or higher tend to see significant growth in their earnings, especially in their 30s, while those with lower levels of educational attainment see “relatively modest growth” in their earnings, according to the report. 

The report also reinforces that students’ occupations or majors significantly impact how much they make. For instance, workers who earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture and engineering typically had the highest-paying careers, while those who majored in education had the lowest-paying careers. 

Similar variations exist among workers with lower levels of education. Workers with only a high school diploma earn the most in computer and mathematical occupations, while those with an associate degree had the highest earnings in health practice occupations. 

However, some workers earn more than other people with higher levels of education. At least one-quarter of workers with no more than a high school education earn more than half the workers with an associate degree, according to the report. And a similar share of people with an associate degree makes more than half the workers with a bachelor’s degree. 

Much of those variations boil down to occupational choices. An associate-degree holder working in a health practice occupation has median lifetime earnings of $2.9 million — a figure just higher than the median lifetime earnings for all bachelor’s degree holders. 

“In general, having more education leads to more earnings,” said Emma Wenzinger, strategic communications specialist at Georgetown CEW. “But it’s going to vary a lot depending on what someone studies in college, where they work, what situation they’re in, what industry they’re in.”

Wage differences also exist across gender and racial and ethnic groups. 

Women, for instance, have lower median lifetime earnings than men at every level of education. 

Meanwhile, Asian workers have the highest median lifetime earnings among the racial and ethnic groups tracked at the master’s degree level. And White workers have the highest among those with only a high school diploma and an associate degree. White and Asian workers are tied as having the highest median lifetime earnings among bachelor’s-degree holders. 

The report recommends career counseling systems be improved to help students navigate the complexities of the job market. 

“There’s a lot of information here,” Wenzinger said. “We think that students can really benefit from professional career counselors who could show them this data, explain how it works.”