Our Work

How does a college degree improve graduates’ employment and earnings potential?

Key Takeaways

  • College graduates are half as likely to be unemployed as their peers who only have a high school degree.
  • Typical earnings for bachelor’s degree holders are $36,000 or 84 percent higher than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma.
  • College graduates on average make $1.2 million more over their lifetime.

Employment Earnings for Workers Aged 22-27

The evidence that a college degree significantly improves one’s employment prospects and earnings potential is overwhelming. Bachelor’s degree holders are half as likely to be unemployed as their peers who only have a high school degree and they make $1.2 million in additional earnings on average over their lifetime.1,2 Analyzing outcomes data from over 30 million students, a group of economists also found public universities offer the greatest upward economic mobility.

Bolstered Prospects

Sixty percent of bachelor’s degrees in the United States are awarded by public institutions. College-educated workers enjoy a substantial earnings premium. On an annual basis, median earnings for bachelor’s degree holders are $36,000 or 84 percent higher than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma.3 The earnings gap between college graduates and those with less education continues to widen. In 2021, median income for recent graduates reached $52,000 a year for bachelor’s degree holders aged 22–27. For high school graduates the same age, median earnings are $30,000 a year.4

Recent college graduates also weathered the Great Recession far better than their peers with a high school diploma. Today, the jobless rate for bachelor’s degree holders is less than 2 percent.5 And the incidence of poverty among bachelor’s degree holders is 3.5 times lower than it is for those who hold high school degrees.6 A college education is expected to become even more valuable. Over the past decade, all net job growth has gone to workers with bachelor’s degree or graduate degrees.7

Additional Benefits to Graduates

Of course, a college education is about more than just securing a job and a steady income. Consider health and safety, prerequisites for leading a fulfilling life. Bachelor’s degree holders are 47 percent more likely to have health insurance provided through their job and their employers contribute 74 percent more to their health coverage. Life expectancy is also longer for those who attend college. Studies suggest that those who have attended at least some college can expect to live seven years longer than their peers with no postsecondary education.

Image of lifetime earnings by education level

1. Abel and Deitz, “Despite Rising Costs, College Is Still a Good Investment,” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2019.
2. Timiraos and Zumbrun “The July Jobs Report in 15 Charts,” Wall Street Journal, 2016.
3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quartiles and Selected Deciles of Usual Weekly Earnings by Educational Attainment, 2022.
4. “The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates,” The Federal Reserve Bank of New York,” 2022.
5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Unemployment Rate – College Graduates – Bachelor’s Degree, 25 years and over, retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 2022.
6. Trostel, Lumina Foundation, “It’s Not Just the Money,” 2015.
7. Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey

Featured Project & Initiative

The Data Literacy Institute – a partnership between APLU and the Association for Institutional Research with funding from Ascendium – brings together cross-departmental teams from 11 Powered by Publics institutions from Cluster 14 to engage in training that enhance their use of data to improve equitable student outcomes. In May 2022, Powered by Publics held […]

Featured Publication

2022 APLU Annual Report