How the Earnings Gap Between Workers With and Without A College Education Has Changed in the Last 20 Years

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Two in 3 jobs require postsecondary education and training, according to a report published by Georgetown University in 2019. By comparison, 3 in 4 jobs required a high school diploma at most in the 1970s.

Those with a bachelor’s degree make more money, with median weekly earnings of $1,547 in 2020, compared to $838 for workers with a high school diploma, according to a July 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. During the second quarter of 2022, those with bachelor’s degrees earned 61% more than those with some college or associate degrees. Workers with some college or associate degrees made 15% more than those with just high school diplomas. High school diploma recipients earned 22% more than workers who didn’t complete high school.

The inflation calculator from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis shows inflation has grown 64% since 2002; that roughly equals the growth rate of weekly earnings for those with bachelor’s degrees and beats the rate of those with high school diplomas or some college.

College Ave compared how median weekly earnings have changed between the second quarters of 2002 and 2022 for workers of different education levels based on BLS data. Besides weekly earnings data, the number of workers in each educational bracket as of August 2022 was also included. The data is focused on workers ages 25 and older.

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Less than a high school diploma

  • Number of workers: 8.2 million
  • Median usual weekly earnings in 2002: $390
  • Median usual weekly earnings in 2022: $689
  • 20-year growth: 76.7%

Choices can be limited for those entering the workforce without a high school diploma or GED, but there are opportunities especially in roles that provide on-the-job training. Cooks, drivers, janitors, landscapers, waiters, and warehouse workers are among the options. But young adults without a degree are firmly in the minority. The percentage of those ages 25 to 29 who finished at least high school rose from 89% to 94% between 2010 and 2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The unemployment rate for people ages 25 and older who did not have a high school diploma was 4.3% in February 2022, per the BLS; that compares to 3.8% for people with some college credits or an associate degree.

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High school diploma, no college

  • Number of workers: 34.4 million
  • Median usual weekly earnings in 2002: $532
  • Median usual weekly earnings in 2022: $838
  • 20-year growth: 57.5%

High school graduates without a college degree face challenges finding positions that pay well, but some areas of employment are expanding. Flight attendants, for example, made about $61,640 annually in 2021, and the field is expected to add 22,100 jobs by 2031, according to the BLS. The salary for property and real estate managers was about $59,230 in 2021, and another 11,100 jobs could be available by 2031. Carpenters made about $48,260, and that field is projected to expand by about 20,500 jobs. People 25 years and older who were high school graduates with no college had an unemployment rate of 4.5% in February 2022, per the BLS.

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Some college or associate degree

  • Number of workers: 34.1 million
  • Median usual weekly earnings in 2002: $634
  • Median usual weekly earnings in 2022: $961
  • 20-year growth: 51.6%

Even two years at a community college can put a graduate in a position to qualify for a job with a good income. The BLS says it designates 99 occupations that typically require postsecondary education, usually an associate degree or a certificate, but not a bachelor’s degree. For example, medical equipment must be installed and repaired, and those in the field earned about $49,910 in 2021. An associate degree in biomedical technology or engineering is typically needed, though a bachelor’s degree might be necessary to advance. Another promising area of employment, geological and hydraulic technicians, demands an associate degree, often in applied science or science-related technology. They work with scientists and engineers exploring for and extracting natural resources and made about $50,080 in 2021.

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Bachelor’s degree and higher

  • Number of workers: 61.9 million
  • Median usual weekly earnings in 2002: $939
  • Median usual weekly earnings in 2022: $1,547
  • 20-year growth: 64.7%

The number of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher is growing. As of 2021, 38% of adults 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree, according to Pew Research Center; that number includes the 14.3% who also earned a graduate or professional degree, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The share of adults with a higher education degree in 2022 is 38%, a percentage that has grown quite a bit from 2011, when it was 30.4%. This category of occupations is broad, from a high school teacher with a bachelor’s degree earning $61,820 a year to a physicist or astronomer who can make $147,450 a year (often with a doctorate) to an orthopedic surgeon with a medical degree making $306,220. Workers with at least a bachelor’s degree have a higher likelihood of earning more than those with just a high school education.


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