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Do College Grads Really Earn More Than High School Grads?

By: Jordin Frey

Stories about entrepreneurs who dropped out of school to pursue new business ventures and ended up creating multi-million-dollar businesses are popular in the media. The heart of those stories is that all you need to succeed is the motivation and determination to create something bigger than yourself. These stories might make you wonder, are these outliers or the new normal? Do college grads really earn more than high school grads? With college costs rising, it's easy to wonder if it's even worth the high price tag and if the benefits outweigh the costs.

College students usually graduate with a fair amount of debt, which high school graduates don't usually have. And after graduation, people with college degrees frequently struggle to find work in their chosen field and end up taking jobs at the same places where high school graduates work. By that logic, it would seem that high school vs. college graduate salaries would be about the same; if anything, college grads would be at a disadvantage because they lost four years of work experience and have debt to pay off. However, this only tells part of the story.

High School vs. College Graduate Salaries: Differences Over Time

While it's true that college grads commonly end up working in lower-paying jobs that aren't in their chosen field, that doesn't mean that they stay there. Often, if a college grad starts out by working a similar job to a high school grad, it's a stepping stone to a more lucrative job on a better career path. This is because obtaining a college degree can significantly improve a student's career prospects and earning potential. When you look at high school vs. college lifetime earnings, those who pursued post-secondary education make more money on average than those who only obtain a high school diploma.

This means that while you may look at day-to-day high school vs. college graduate salaries and see very little difference in the amount of money being made, especially by recent college graduates, that is likely to change over time. Studies on high school vs. college lifetime earnings show the stark differences in income between those who have only completed their high school diploma and those who have continued their education. In fact, research has found that there's a median earning gap of $17,500 a year between high school and college grads.

That's why if you're a recent high school graduate trying to figure out what your next step should be, it could be well worth the investment to enroll in college. Keep in mind, too, that you don't have to choose a private four-year institution that will land you deeply in debt; there are plenty of alternatives that cost less and are easier to work around your schedule. And once you graduate, you'll be well-positioned to make more money than you would have without a college degree.