How Much More Will You Earn with a College Degree?

How Much More Will You Earn with a College Degree?

Updated July 26, 2022
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How Much More Will You Earn with a College Degree?

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Getting a college degree is more important than ever these days if you want to earn a competitive salary.

A college degree makes a huge difference in the salary you can expect when looking for a job, but by just how much? What can you expect to earn with a high school diploma vs. college degree salary?

The completion of high school opens the first door to your future – having a high school diploma raises the median weekly earnings of an individual from $592 (for those without a diploma) to $746 for someone who did graduate high school.

But that is just the beginning – while those earnings may seem decent for someone just graduating, it is still far less than what you might earn with a bachelor’s degree.

High School Diploma Salary vs College Degree Salary

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics provides figures based on a population survey about salary and unemployment rates for several different educational levels, and the numbers tell the story.

High School Diploma Salary Expectations

Lifetime earnings for those who finish college and get their bachelor's degree far exceed those who only possess a high school diploma.

To illustrate this, it's helpful to evaluate earnings over a longer period of time. Most people will work until retirement age, so let's assume you'll be spending at least 40 years working at a lower earning potential.

Young adults with only a high school education can expect to earn $746 per week, or $38,792 per year, though keep in mind that this figure assumes you're working 52 weeks per year. If you work a position that offers unpaid vacation, your earnings will be less whenever you take time off for vacation or due to illness. Unemployment rates were 3.7% for this education attainment group in 2019.

Over a lifetime, this adds up to over $1.55 million, which sounds pretty great.

Bachelor’s Degree Salary Expectations

The salary you can expect after earning a professional degree will, of course, vary depending on your profession. In terms of salary, you’ll earn an average of $1,248 per week, or $64,896 per year – that's $26,104 more per year, or $502 more per week than someone with just a high school diploma.

Over your lifetime, this adds up to over $2.6 million – literally a million dollars more. Furthermore, most people who earn their bachelor’s degree are more employable – they experience an unemployment rate of just 2.2%.

College is a commitment, and it will take time and dedication to earn your degree, but you will enjoy a much higher earning potential.

Again, when you consider your lifetime earnings (assuming 40 working years), the difference is staggering:

  • $1.55 million if you are a high school graduate with no higher education
  • $2.59 million if you obtain your bachelor’s degree

Over the long-term, a college diploma will allow you to have greater financial stability. Those with a master's degree or other advanced degrees can expect to earn even more.

Disparity in Degree Type and Earnings

If you’re planning on going to college, it’s important to consider what your major will be. Specialized degrees can earn significantly more than the figures listed above. A degree in computer science may lead to a career in information security.

A fast-growing career, life as an information security analyst will net you a median salary of $99,730 per year with less than 5 years of experience.

On the other hand, if you choose a degree in fine arts, you may have an initial salary that is very similar to that of a person without a degree.

Choosing a high-paying degree and specialization is key. Of course, you also need to consider your own unique talents and interests when choosing a degree to pursue.

Even if your degree costs you $100,000 to obtain, you would still make nearly $1 million more in lifetime earnings than if you chose a non-degree career path.

How Student Loans Factor In

Going to college is expensive, and it's likely you'll need to take out a student loan to help pay for your education (though government grants and scholarships can certainly help with the costs). Those with student debt may feel as though their decision to pursue an education has set them back financially, especially when factoring in the costs of repaying those loans after they have graduated.

If your friends are all making money at their jobs while you're earning nothing as a student, it can feel like you've made a bad financial decision – but that's not the case.

A recent report by the College Board shows that a typical full-time, 4-year college graduate who enrolls after high school and graduates after 4 years can expect to earn enough money to make up for being out of the workforce for the four years they were a student by the time they turn 33. After that point, their lifetime earnings will grow significantly faster than those without a college degree.