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Georgetown CEW: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings

Georgetown CEW: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings


When I read the press release that the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce had issued another report, I eagerly downloaded “The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings.”

Using data from the American Community Survey, an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, researchers pooled data from 2009-2019. The data was limited to individuals ages 25-64 (a 40-year span was assumed for lifetime earnings).

The researchers compared differences in lifetime earnings for individuals based on their education, such as no high school degree, high school degree, some college, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctoral degree, or professional degree. Other factors included undergraduate major, occupation, industry, race and ethnicity, state, age, and gender.

From my perspective, there were no surprises in the findings. As reported in other papers and reports, more educated workers earn more over their lifetimes than less educated workers at the median.

earnings 1 Boston

However, the researchers reported not just the median earnings but the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile. They noted that not all workers with higher levels of education earn more than all workers with less education.

earnings 2 Boston

Notable data points that the researchers pointed out in the report included:

  • 31% of workers with a high school diploma earn more than half of workers with an associate’s degree.
  • 28% of workers with an associate’s degree earn more than half of workers with a bachelor’s degree.
  • 36% of workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more than half of workers with a master’s degree.
  • Associate’s degrees holders working in computer and mathematical occupations have the same median lifetime earnings as all bachelor’s degree holders.
  • Workers with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and engineering have median lifetime earnings of $3.8 million, well above the $3.2 million median lifetime earnings for master’s degree holders.
  • At the 75th percentile, those with a bachelor’s degree earn $4.1 million over their lifetimes, more than the median for workers with a master’s or doctoral degree.
  • After age 30, professional degree holders have the highest median earnings by education level (which makes sense given that these programs are three to four years and in the case of medical professional degrees require lower paying internships and residencies).
  • At age 40, professional degree holders have a median earnings 141% greater than age 25

The researchers built a tool that enables readers to view different scenarios of the data than the 13 figures published in the report. I found it to be a little confusing at first, but eventually figured it out.

Not surprisingly, earnings vary substantially by undergraduate major. The chart below illustrates that teachers with only a bachelor’s degree have the lowest peak lifetime earnings. Architects and engineers have the highest.

earnings 3 Boston

The report notes that earnings disparities continue to persist between males and females, as well as between whites and other races/ethnicities. Even though women now outnumber men at all educational levels, the researchers note that they are more concentrated in lower-paying majors, such as education and social services.

The federal government is likely the reason that the District of Columbia has the highest median lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree holders at $3.3 million. The neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland are tied for third at $3.1 million, and Connecticut is second at $3.2 million. The same four states have the highest median lifetime earnings for master’s degree holders, ranging from $3.5 million to $3.8 million.

The researchers conclude their report with a recommendation that the career counseling system be expanded and improved for students at all levels. Their reasoning is that there are countless pathways for education and careers, and navigating that complexity is difficult. Improving the counseling beginning in middle school would give students the information that they need to make better decisions about their education and the occupation that will generate their lifetime earnings and enhance their well-being.

I agree with the recommendation of the researchers. As a first-generation college student (1GLI), I consider myself fortunate to have been awarded scholarships to attend private school and colleges. Those schools not only provided academic and career counseling, but they invited alumni to speak about their careers and provide networking and mentoring.

If all Americans had services like this available, who knows what the potential might be. It will be interesting to see if this research and recommendations gets any traction with the Biden administration.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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