How Higher Education Affects Lifetime Salary

College degrees significantly boost earnings, but women and minorities benefit less.

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While those earning master's, doctoral, or professional degrees still earn more during their careers than those with less education, the gap is closing, according to The College Payoff, a report published today by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. 

"It's still true that, on average, it's better to get the higher degree; it's better to keep climbing—but it's less and less true," says the center's director, Anthony Carnevale. 

[Learn about the job outlook for the class of 2011.] 

Those holding bachelor's degrees earn about $2.27 million over their lifetime, while those with master's, doctoral, and professional degrees earn $2.67 million, $3.25 million, and $3.65 million, respectively. That said, the major and industry a student selects ultimately have an enormous impact on lifetime earnings. Those with bachelor's degrees who work either in management or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) earn more, on average, than people with advanced degrees of any level who work in fields like education, sales, and community service. 

[Understand the value of a graduate degree.] 

Those with bachelor's degrees, no matter the field, earn vastly more than counterparts with some college ($1.55 million in lifetime earnings) or a high school diploma ($1.30 million lifetime), indicating that no matter the level of attainment or the field of study, simply earning a four-year degree is often integral to financial success later in life. 

"The payoff from getting a college degree is huge and is actually increasing," says Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit focused on boosting America's number of college graduates. "For people wondering [if] a college degree [is] worth it: Not only is it worth it, but the premium is growing." 

The report did reveal some sobering news for women and minorities. Among minorities, all ethnic groups' career earnings were less than that of Caucasians, save for Asians with master's, doctoral, and professional degrees, who outpaced white workers with degrees of the same level. Latinos and African-Americans with master's degrees earn nearly the same in their lifetimes—roughly $2.50 million—as white workers who have bachelor's degrees. 

The data suggests that a glass ceiling is still firmly in place in America's workforce. Across all industries, on average, women have to attain a Ph.D to earn more in their lifetimes ($2.86 million) than men who have only attained a bachelor's degree ($2.60 million). Similarly, women with bachelor's degrees earn nearly the same—about $1.90 million—over the course of their careers as men with some college experience but no degree. 

[See how business schools are working to shatter the glass ceiling.] 

Carnevale, of Georgetown, suggests that women who want to earn more than their male counterparts will either have to attain more degrees or simply select a higher-paying industry, given the unbalanced playing field. "You can close the gap by getting more education, and that does seem to be the strategy, at least implicitly, that women are following," he says. "If you want to make more than lots of men, and you're a woman, then go into engineering." 

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