Answering the Age-Old Question: Is a College Degree Worth It?

Is a college degree worth it? This question has pervaded conversations from family dining tables to corporate board rooms to political pulpits for quite awhile in the United States. However, topics such as student loan forgiveness, state support for public institutions, higher costs of attendance, and return-on-investment have increasingly amplified the asking of this question throughout public and private discourse. In the next series of blog posts, we will explore data from a number of sources to help us better understand the issues surrounding this increasingly important question.

One of the leaders in wrestling with this topic has been the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University. Using data from publicly-available sources such as the US Census Bureau and the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, the CEW has produced a number of metrics pertaining to the value of higher education in the United States. In this post, we start our exploration of this data topic by looking at median lifetime earnings by educational attainment level as estimated by the CEW.

Distribution of Median Lifetime Earnings by Education Level

  • The first visualization below shows the distribution of median lifetime earnings by highest education level attained. The dots on the bottom of each raincloud plot represent each state’s median lifetime earnings, while the distribution across states is shown in the box-and-whisker and density plots above the dot plots. The median-of-medians for each education level is printed above each plot.
  • The largest percentage jump as you move up the educational ladder occurs from associate’s degrees to bachelor’s degrees, with bachelor’s degree holders earning 33% more over the course of their lifetime than associate’s degree holders. Those with a doctoral degrees see a 29% increase over master’s degree holders, while earning a professional degree (MD, JD, DVM) adds an additional 25% increase over doctoral degrees.
  • Typical conversations about earnings revolve around the difference between lifetime earnings with a bachelor’s degree versus a high school diploma. In the CEW estimates, we can see that there is a $1.1 million difference ($1.7M for HS/GED vs $2.8M for bachelor’s) in terms of median lifetime earnings
Note: Click the arrows to the right and left of the visualization to move between slides.

Highest Median Lifetime Earnings for Bachelor’s Graduates: Top 15 States 

  • The second slide gives a snapshot of which states have the highest median earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree. For comparison, each state’s median lifetime earnings for a high school diploma/GED are included as well.
  • Texas ranks 13th overall in terms of bachelor’s degree median earnings at $2.87M, which is $700K above the overall median of $2.8M shown in the first visualization above. 
  • Missing from this top 15 list for bachelor’s degree holders are states such as California (22nd overall with $2.82M in median lifetime earnings), New York (37th overall with $2.63M in median lifetime earnings), and Florida (47th overall with $2.35M in median lifetime earnings).  

How Much More is a Bachelor’s Degree Worth than a HS Diploma: Top 15 States

  • While California was outside the overall top 20 in terms of lifetime median earnings for Bachelor’s degrees, the state has the highest percentage difference between earnings with just a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree. California’s 97% increase ($1.43M for HS/GED vs $2.82M for bachelor’s degree) was one of two states with 90-plus percentage increases, being joined by Virginia at 94% ($1.58M vs $3.06M). 
  • Texas ranked 6th overall in the percentage increase from HS/GED to bachelor’s degree at 83% ($1.57M for HS/GED vs $2.87M for bachelor’s degree), behind New York’s 5th place at 85% ($1.42M vs $2.63M), but ahead of Florida in 19th place overall at a 70% difference ($1.38M vs 2.35M).

So What?

Questions around “value” can often be answered quite accurately by, “It depends.” There are certainly circumstances where additional education, when factoring in associated costs, may diminish or off-set additional benefit. However, as shown above, the general consensus is that each additional level of education attained increases estimated lifetime earnings. In future blog posts, we will build our knowledge base from this starting point to better understand some of the nuances around the association between education and earnings.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *