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• Multiple analyses show that people with bachelor’s degrees stand to earn more than $1 million in added income over a lifetime compared with people who lack them, though one study showed differentials that, while substantial, did not quite reach $1 million.
• The income differential can vary based on undergraduate major, gender, race, ethnicity and industry of employment
How important is getting a college degree to someone’s future financial security? Very important, according to State University of New York trustee Stanley S. Litow.
Litow — a public policy professor and innovator in residence at Duke University as well as an adjunct professor at Columbia University — said so in a Feb. 7 news release announcing an expansion of SUNY system policies on granting academic credit for learning outside of the traditional classroom.
The SUNY effort would grant credit for on-the-job training, military experience, apprenticeships, and industry certifications.
"Lifetime earnings of someone with a college degree is over a million dollars more than those entering the workforce without one," said Litow, who is also the author of the book, "The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward."
We examined some of the academic research and found that Litow’s statement was essentially on target.
The analysis that seems most on point was conducted by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
The study, titled "The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings," found that having a bachelor’s degree "is worth $2.8 million on average over a lifetime," compared with less than $1 million for those who did not have a high school diploma — a difference of $1.8 million.
The analysis, which compared full-time workers’ earnings over a career from age 25 to 64, also found that bachelor’s degree holders earned 31% more than holders of associate degrees and 84% more than those who had only high school diplomas.
The study’s authors offered a few caveats. They said that the benefits of a bachelor’s degree could vary depending on someone’s cohort and they added that it’s unclear whether the education-lifetime earnings relationship will look the same in the future.
Katherine Hazelrigg, a Georgetown center spokesperson, told PolitiFact New York that Litow’s findings are consistent with the center’s study and with other academic research. She cautioned, however, that a degree’s precise financial benefit can vary based on academic major, gender, race, ethnicity and industry of employment.
Litow provided PolitiFact New York with links to support his statement. He said he had previously cited a similar statistic in columns in Barron’s in May 2022 and November 2022. In the May 2022 column, he referenced 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics data saying that "someone with a college degree will earn $524 more per week, $27,000 more per year, and $1 million more over a lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma or less."
Meanwhile, 2015 research by the Social Security Administration found that men with bachelor's degrees earned a little less than $1 million more than men without a bachelor’s degree but still saw significant financial advantages. The Social Security Administration data found that the median male bachelor’s degree recipient earned about $900,000 more over a lifetime than a male high school graduate did, while the advantage for college-degree-earning women was about $630,000 compared with high school diploma-earning women.
Also, men with graduate degrees earned $1.5 million over a lifetime than high school graduates did, while women with graduate degrees earned $1.1 million more, according to the Social Security Administration data.
Even earning a high school diploma or General Educational Development certificate provides a financial benefit compared with not having one, although the differential is smaller, according to the Georgetown study.
Litow said he believes that increased college attendance and completion rates will address skills shortages in the economy and boost tax revenue, providing "a clear return on our investment."
Litow said, "Lifetime earnings of someone with a college degree is over a million dollars more than those entering the workforce without one."
Multiple analyses show that a bachelor’s degree can provide more than $1 million in added income over a lifetime compared with not having one, although one study showed dollar figures that, while substantial, did not quite reach $1 million.
Also, the income differential can vary based on factors including undergraduate major, gender, race, ethnicity and industry of employment
We rate this statement Mostly True.
Stanley S. Litow, SUNY press release, Feb. 7, 2023,
Georgetown University Center On Education and the Workforce, "The College Payoff: Education, Occupation and Lifetime Earnings," 2021
Stanley S. Litow, "College Still Matters, Now More Than Ever." (column in Barron’s), May 10, 2022
Stanley S. Litow, "A Promising New Way To Fill The Skills Gap" (column in Barron’s), Nov. 17, 2022
Social Security Administration, "Research, Statistics and Policy Analysis.", Nov. 2015
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Earnings and Unemployment Rates By Educational Attainment, 2021"
Site Selection Magazine, "Education Level is Only One Part of the Lifetimes Earning Picture." 2022
Liberty Street Economics, "Despite Rising Costs, College is Still a Good Investment.", June 5, 2019
Email interview with Stanley S. Litow, State University of New York trustee, Feb. 23, 2023
Email interview with Katherine Hazelrigg, director of strategic communications and production at Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Feb. 24, 2023
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