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By Janel Davis August 2, 2013

Educational levels generally make a difference in earnings

Fox political commentator Bill O’Reilly waded into the national conversation on race with a rant last week about what he sees as lingering problems in the black community. During a "Talking Points" segment, the conservative white commentator took aim at the breakdown of the African-American family, drugs and the entertainment industry’s promotion of "gangsta culture."

Then CNN anchor Don Lemon took O’Reilly’s commentary a step further. Lemon, in a response that has since gone viral, launched his own rant last weekend during an on-air "No Talking Points" segment.

Lemon, who is black, outlined five points for African-Americans to fix their problems, a kind of free self-help session. They included: pull up your pants, respect where you live and finish school.

Lemon threw out a couple of statistics to cement his points. So we decided to check out his numbers referenced in his education argument.

"You want to break the cycle of poverty?" Lemon says in the rant. "Stop telling kids they're acting white because they go to school or they speak proper English. A high school dropout makes on average $19,000 a year, a high school graduate makes $28,000 a year, a college graduate makes $51,000 a year. Over the course of a career, a college grad will make nearly $1 million more than a high school graduate. That's a lot of money."

A lot of money, indeed. Enough money to warrant a check of the facts.

The CNN anchor’s rant led immediately to a huge blowback from people across the country, and much of it unfolded on social media. Atlanta political insider-turned MSNBC contributor Goldie Taylor even referred to Lemon as a "turncoat" in a series of fiery Twitter posts.

Lemon’s opinions are his own and not up for checking. PolitiFact looks at statements of purported fact, not opinions.

But what of Lemon’s educational attainment stats?

There are several sources that have examined Americans’ earnings by education level.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that weekly median annual earnings in 2012 for a high school dropout were $471; $652 for a high school graduate; and $1,066 for a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Multiplying those weekly figures by 52, and the annual earnings for a high school dropout were $24,492, compared with $33,904 for a high school graduate and $55,432 for a college graduate.

The BLS data, last modified in May, is for people age 25 and over, and earnings are for full-time wage and salary workers.

A study by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal economics think tank, found that the average hourly wage in 2012 for people without a high school diploma was $11.75, compared with $15.78 for high school graduates and $28.28 for college graduates. In 2012, the BLS reported that Americans at private, nonfarm companies worked an average of 34.5 hours per week. Do the math on those numbers, and high school dropouts earned $21,080 for the year; high school graduates, $28,309; and college graduates, $50,734.

Several university and economic studies have used 2010 census data of median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers age 25-64. The data, released in 2011, found that non-high school graduates made $25,705; high school graduates, $35,035; and college graduates with a bachelor’s degree, $55,864.

Over the course of a lifetime, a Georgetown University study found that high school graduates would make $1.3 million, while college graduates with a bachelor’s degree would make $2.3 million. The report, and others, note that occupation, gender, race and ethnicity can influence outcomes. Those influences, along with a tough economy, have caused some researchers to lower the lifetime gap to between $280,000 and $450,000.

So, does Lemon’s claim pay off?

Depending on what data is collected, how that data is collected and what data set you consider, Lemon’s claim could be correct, or at least within a few thousand dollars for each educational level.

But use other data, and his claim could be off by several thousand dollars. Also of note, several factors -- including gender, occupation, age and the economy -- can influence annual and lifetime earnings for workers at all education levels.

Still, his overall theme that higher educational attainment equals higher wages seems to be correct no matter which data set is considered.

We rated Lemon’s claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

CNN, "No Talking Points" segment, Don Lemon, July 27, 2013

Real Clear Politics video and transcript, "CNN's Don Lemon: Bill O'Reilly's Criticism Of Black Community ‘Doesn't Go Far Enough,’" July 27, 2013

Fox News, "Talking Points: President Obama and the race problem," Bill O’Reilly, July 22, 2013

PolitiFact, "CNN’s Don Lemon says more than 72 percent of African-American births are out of wedlock," Louis Jacobson, July 29, 2013

Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America,12th edition, Table 4-14, published November 2012

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment, modified May 22, 2013

Huffington Post, "Don Lemon: Bill O’Reilly’s ‘got a point’ about black people," Katherine Fung, July 28, 2013

The Root, "Start with the man in the mirror, Don Lemon," Helena Andrews, July 30, 2013

Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, "The College Payoff: Education, Occupation and Lifetime Earnings," released Aug. 5, 2011

The Wall Street Journal, "What’s a degree really worth," Mary Pilon, Feb. 2, 2010

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Educational levels generally make a difference in earnings

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