TURES COLUMN: The actual value of today’s college degree

Published 9:38 pm Monday, October 30, 2023

There’s a lot of debate about the value of a college degree. At a meeting of adults where we normally debate foreign policy, one member quipped “And we all know that a college degree today is worthless.” So I decided to investigate this with a team of researchers: a class full of first year students. And this is what we found.

We compared how much the average college student earns over a lifetime, subtracting four years from their earnings when compared to a high school graduate, as well as the costs of paying for a college degree. Our students Adam Jones, Mason Hufstetler and Jakai Reed found the average high school graduate earns $36,600 per year, and over 48 years (ages 18-65) earns $1.75 million over a lifetime, on average. Their classmates Reecia Gault, Allison Duncan and Jala Williams discovered that the average college graduate earns $60,000 per year, and over 44 years (ages 22-65) earns $2.64 million (though Forbes says it’s more like $2.8 million over one’s career). Take out the average costs of college, and that’s still about a million dollars more over a lifetime.

We decided to look a little more at the value of a college degree, by looking at graduate earnings. Hannah Walls and Jalen Jones agreed to study what someone earns with a graduate degree, on average. That figure comes out to $86,000 per year. And with earning times going from 25 to 65, that’s $3.44 million per year. And you pretty much need a college degree to get into graduate school.

My students Salman Ali and Ian Bramlett teamed up to find out how much a person with a medical degree earns over their lifetime, on average. They discovered that the figure comes out to $255,000 per year, on average. 

If we start the clock at age 30 and end at age 65, that results in $9.18 million over their lifetimes, on average, minus the average cost of another $280,000 in bills for the medical degree, so the final tally is closer to $8.9 million over a lifetime. And medical school is typically contingent upon 

Then a pair of undergraduates, Wyatt Wilkerson and Alex Morgan, did the same analysis for the law degree. They discovered that an average attorney salary is around $168,000. Over 36 years of earning potential, that’s $8.9 million over a lifetime, on average. And like a medical degree, you need that college degree to gain entrance.

To see how much that high school degree is worth, Azarya Plummer chose to calculate the earnings of someone who dropped out and entered the workforce early. She found research by Amelia Josephson that suggests the average annual income for such a person is $32,188 per year. Over 48 years (from 18-65), that person would have made $1.545 million, or about $600,000 less than if that person finished their high school education. NCES numbers peg that salary as below $30,000. Those with some college make on average about $39,900 over their lifetimes (and those with associate’s degrees make about $4,000 a year more than that), far less than they would earn with those college degrees, as other class undergraduates Kenneth Garrett and Da’Vion Kincey learned when they researched it.

In addition to these findings, I’ve also researched information that shows college graduates are more likely to be employed, less likely to be impoverished or imprisoned, and pay more into the system in terms of taxes (with higher incomes, that’s expected) as well as invest more, be a homeowner, save more and invest more for retirement. 

I don’t look down on those without college. My dad was the only one of ten siblings to go to college, and I have great relatives with lots of accomplishments who didn’t go to college. But my aunts and uncles did their best to send their kids to college. I can