Calculating the Benefits of a College Degree

At a time when shadows of doubt have been cast on the value of a college education, research shows that the question of a degree’s worth can be answered by looking at the current job market.

In fact, the potential cost of not attending college is at an all-time high, according to the Pew Research Center. In a 2014 report, the center outlined the economic struggles experienced by young workers who don’t have a college degree: Individuals with just a high school diploma had median annual earnings that were 62% lower than those of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree.

The data reflects the changing nature of the American labor market since 1965, when high school grads earned about 81% of the income of college grads.

The Pew report also found that among Millennials age 25 to 32 with only a high school diploma, 22% were living in poverty as of 2013. By comparison, just 7% of high school grads among the Baby Boom generation were living in poverty at the equivalent point in their life.

What explains the widening earnings gap?

Part of the reason can be found in today’s job market and its emphasis on knowledge-based work, which tends to be more stratified in terms of earnings.

There has been a significant dip in the earnings of workers with just a high school education over the past 25 years. According to an economic policy initiative of the Brookings Institution, the decline in wages for those with a high school diploma between 1990 and 2013 hit men particularly hard, with their earnings decreasing by 13%. Women fared better, seeing wage growth of 3%, although that lagged far behind the 16% earnings growth of women with a bachelor’s degree.

Even considering the cost of a college education, 90% of Millennials believe their bachelor’s degree was worth the investment or will prove to be in the future, the Pew Research Center reported. On average, those college grads earned $17,500 a year more than workers with a high school diploma.

That economic gap persists with the passage of time, the Brookings project found. The median earnings of high school grads generally remain lower than those of bachelor’s degree recipients throughout the entire span of their careers, from entry to retirement.

Job Satisfaction Higher Among College Grads

Higher wages are far from the only potential benefit of a college education.

A little more than 40% of Millennials who finished their education at the high school level view their job as just that, a job, Pew reported. That’s three times higher than the percentage of college grads (14%) who reported that their job is just something to get them by.

Beyond job satisfaction and professional fulfillment, researchers also have found links between educational attainment and health. A report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation noted that life-expectancy rates were higher for college grads, who also reported fewer health problems compared to high school grads.

Similarly, children of college grads were significantly less likely than the offspring of high school grads to be in poor health, researchers found.

“By providing the knowledge and skills necessary to fully participate in the labor force, education can be key in promoting social mobility and in breaking the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage and related health disparities,” the report concluded.

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