The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce explores how lifetime earnings vary by education level, field of study, occupation, industry, gender, race and ethnicity, and location. The lifetime earnings of a full-time full-year worker with a high school diploma are $1.6 million, while workers with an associate’s degree earn $2 million. However, at least one quarter of high school graduates earn more than an associate’s degree holder. Bachelor’s degree holders earn a median of $2.8 million during their career, 75% more than if they had only a high school diploma. Master’s degree holders 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. However, one quarter of workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more than half of workers with a master’s or a doctoral degree.
Workers in some high-paying fields can earn as much or more than workers at a higher education level across fields. Those with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and engineering have median lifetime earnings of $3.8 million, well above the median of $3.2 million for all master’s degree holders. Similarly, an associate’s degree holder in a computer and mathematical occupation has median lifetime earnings of $2.8 million, the same as median lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree holders overall.
Other Key Findings:
- While women with a high school diploma earn a median of $1.3 million over their lifetimes, men earn $1.8 million. At the master’s degree level, women earn $2.8 million, compared to $3.9 million for men.
- Among high school graduates, White workers earn a median of $1.7 million, compared to $1.4 million for Asian, Black, and Latino workers. At the master’s degree level, Asian workers earn $4 million, compared to $3.2 million for White workers, $3 million for Latino workers, and $2.7 million for Black workers.
- For workers with a high school diploma, median earnings are highest in Wyoming and Alaska ($2 million) and North Dakota ($1.9 million). The District of Columbia, Connecticut, Virginia, and Maryland are the highest-earning places for bachelor’s and master’s degree holders.
- The majors with highest median lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree holders are architecture and engineering ($3.8 million); computers, statistics, and mathematics ($3.6 million); and business ($3 million).
- Computer and mathematical, health practice, and architecture and engineering are the highest paying occupations across education levels.