Lifetime Earnings Soar with Education

Grad degree worth $1.5 million income over a lifetime

Dean presenting graduate students with awards outside college
Barry Austin Photography/Iconica/Getty Images

How much more is higher education worth in cold hard money than a high school diploma? Plenty.

Men with a graduate degree earned more than $1.5 million in lifetime earnings than those with just a high school diploma, according to 2015 statistics from the Social Security Administration. Women earn $1.1 million more.

"The large differences in average work-life earnings among the educational levels reflect both differential starting salaries and also disparate earnings trajectories, that is, the path of earnings over one’s life."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures from 2017 show median weekly wages progressively increasing with educational attainment:

  • Professional degree: $1,836
  • Doctoral degree: $1,743
  • Master's degree: $1,401
  • Bachelor's degree: $1,173
  • Associate's degree: $836
  • Some college, no degree: $774
  • High school diploma, no college: $712
  • Less than a high school diploma: $520

"At most ages, more education equates with higher earnings, and the payoff is most notable at the highest educational levels," said Jennifer Cheeseman Day, co-author of the report.

Who Earns the Most?

It's not surprising that doctors and engineers do best. According to the BLS, anesthesiologists, surgeons, obstetrician-gynecologists, orthodontists, and psychiatrists all make well over $200,000 a year. Even general physicians, chief executives, dentists, nurse anesthetists, pilots and flight engineers, and petroleum engineers all make $175,000–$200,000.

Still in the six-figure category are: information system managers, podiatrists, architectural and engineering managers, marketing managers, financial managers, attorneys, sales managers, natural sciences managers, and compensation and benefits managers.

Of course, most people pursue their passion rather than the dollar when looking at career options, though earning potential is often a factor for many.

'Glass Ceiling' on Earnings Intact

While more American women than men have received bachelor's degrees every year since 1982, men with professional degrees could expect to cumulatively earn almost $2 million more than their female counterparts over their work lives, according to the 2002 report.

Even by 2017, women in the United States sill earned only 80% of the median pay of men, according to the Pew Research Center. The pay gap has remained steady for the past 15 years, according to Pew.

Degrees Always Needed?

There has been a backlash in recent years against the push for everyone to get a college degree. According to the argument, tuition costs have risen to such a level that even with higher-paying jobs, it has become almost impossible to pay off massive student loans in a timely fashion.

Some professions, of course, require advanced degrees. But the lack of skilled tradespeople have raised wages in those professions, and some high school graduates are turning to the higher wage fields of electrician or plumber without tens of thousands of dollars of student loans to repay.

Another trend to avoid student loan debt: skills training.

Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel writes that freelancers say updated skills training courses are more valuable to them than their college classes. And that appears to be what more employers are asking them about on job applications.

Says Kasriel: "The cost of a college education is so high now that we have reached a tipping point at which the debt incurred often isn't outweighed by future earnings potential."