How Much Is That College Degree Really Worth?

A new report estimates—to the dollar—how much a degree boosts your income and other benefits.

Graduation at Georgetown University.

Graduation at Georgetown University.

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As the price of a college degree continues to rise, there's growing evidence that the monetary payoff isn't quite as big as often advertised. The best estimate now is that a college degree is worth about $300,000 in today's dollars—nowhere near the $1 million figure that is often quoted.

"That $1 million number has driven me crazy!" says Sandy Baum, a Skidmore economist who studied the value of a college degree for the College Board last year.

Baum's research showed that college graduates earn, on average, about $20,000 a year more than those who finished their educations at high school. Add that up over a 40-year working life and the total differential is about $800,000, she figures. But since much of that bonus is earned many years from now, subtracting out the impact of inflation means that $800,000 in future dollars is worth only about $450,000 in today's dollars.

Then, if you subtract out the cost of a college degree—about $30,000 in tuition and books for students who get no aid and attend public in-state universities—and the money a student could have earned at a job instead of attending school, the real net value in today's dollars is somewhere in the $300,000 range, a number confirmed by other studies.

But, especially these days, that still makes a college degree one of the most lucrative investments a person can make, Baum notes.

Better yet, college graduates can go on to earn advanced degrees, which return even bigger payoffs. The average holder of a bachelor's degree earns about $51,000 a year, Baum calculates. But those who've gone on to earn MBAs, law degrees, or other professional degrees earn about $100,000 a year.

In addition, Baum found that there are plenty of other rewards for a degree. The quality of the jobs college graduates get is far better, for example. College graduates are more likely to get jobs with health insurance. And it is easier for them to find and hold jobs. The unemployment rate for college graduates was just 2.2 percent last year, half the unemployment level of those with only high school diplomas.

There are lots of other nonmonetary benefits as well. College graduates are healthier, contribute more to their communities, and raise kids who are better prepared academically, studies show.

Other researchers have found that the payoff of a degree is especially lucrative for students from low-income families, since the education and credential give them a chance to break out of low-paying careers.