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July 25, 2002
Report: Big Payoff from Educational Degrees
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Over an adult's working life, high school graduates can expect, on average, to earn $1.2 million; those with a bachelor's degree, $2.1 million; and people with a master's degree, $2.5 million, according to a new report from the Commerce Department's Census Bureau.

People with doctoral ($3.4 million) and professional degrees ($4.4 million) do even better.

"At most ages, more education equates with higher earnings, and the payoff is most notable at the highest educational levels," Jennifer Cheeseman Day, co-author of The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings, said in the press release.

The estimates of work-life earnings are based on 1999 earnings projected over a typical work life, defined as the period from ages 25 through 64. In 2000, 84 percent of American adults age 25 and over had at least completed high school and 26 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher, both all-time highs.

Some additional highlights of the study are as follows:

  • In 1999, average annual earnings ranged from $18,900 for high school dropouts to $25,900 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates and $99,300 for the holders of professional degrees (medical doctors, dentists, veterinarians and lawyers).

  • Over a work life, earnings for a worker with a bachelor's degree compared with one who had just a high school diploma increase by about $1 million for non-Hispanic Whites and about $700,000 for African Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics.

  • Men with professional degrees may expect to cumulatively earn almost $2 million more than their female counterparts over their work lives.

  • More American women than men have received bachelor's degrees every year since 1982.

  • Currently, almost 9-in-10 young adults graduate from high school and about 6-in-10 high school seniors go on to college the following year.


The work-life earnings data were collected in the March supplement to the Current Population Survey for 1998-2000. The data regarding earnings by specific degree fields were collected as part of the 1996 panel of the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Statistics from all surveys are subject to sampling and non-sampling error.

The entire report is available on the Census Bureau Web site.
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