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With the difficulties new college graduates face repaying student loan debt–now a cumulative $1.7 trillion in the United States–many are questioning whether the cost of higher education is worth the potential reward of higher income.

After all, two of the richest men in America, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, did not hold college degrees. While both went to Harvard, neither earned a diploma, and they benefited from on-the-job training as founders of Facebook and Microsoft, respectively. Although the college vs. workforce debate is more relevant than ever, there are important factors to consider before forgoing a college degree.

Key Takeaways

  • As the cost of college has risen, so has the demand for college graduates along with the economic penalties from forgoing college.
  • The pay gap in weekly earnings for those with a degree and for those without a degree is significant.
  • In 2019, the average weekly earnings for high school grads was $789 vs. $1,1416 for those with bachelor’s degrees.
  • Two-year-degree holders hardly fare better than most high-school graduates with median earnings of $874 per week.

But Wait! College Does Pay Off

As the cost of college has risen, so has the demand for college graduates along with the economic penalties of not obtaining a four-year degree. In other words, it’s important to consider income earned as a college graduate versus the income earned for only having a high school degree.

Earnings Breakdown

Below is the average weekly earnings for workers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), broken out by education level.

  • Without a high school diploma: $630
  • High school graduates: $789
  • Bachelor’s degree: $1,416
  • Master’s degree: $2,100

There is a significant pay gap in weekly earnings based on whether workers had a degree and for those who chose not to get either a high school or college degree.

The wage differential reflects, in part, a shift in the nature of the workplace leading to few high-paying low-skilled jobs. For example, there are fewer well-paid positions involving physical labor, such as manufacturing and farm work. Instead, the economy has shifted to more knowledge-based jobs, such as computer programming and marketing, where a bachelor’s degree is required or preferred.

The College Investment

If you’re not convinced yet that it’s worth going to college, consider the study that MIT economist David Autor published in the journal Science back in 2014. Autor showed that, after all the costs associated with a college education were factored in, the holder of a degree over a lifetime of earnings came out $500,000 ahead. Not a bad deal for a four-year investment. On average, a public university costs approximately $26,000 (in-state); a private one, $51,000. 

The Hard Reality

According to a 2019 study, nearly 45% of high school kids surveyed said that a high school diploma would be enough to provide the skills necessary to become successful workers, as reported by the USA Today.

However, the data from the BLS, shown earlier, demonstrates that those with at least a bachelor’s degree will earn 79% higher weekly wages on average than those with only a high school degree.

High-school graduates are increasingly being penalized in a knowledge-based workforce. As a result, today’s high-school grads are more than three times as likely to live in poverty than their predecessors.

Not All Degrees Are Equal

When deciding whether a college degree is worth the investment, it’s important to consider that not all degrees offer the same income opportunities.

Unfortunately, according to the BLS, two-year-degree holders hardly fare better than most high-school graduates with median earnings of $874 per week versus $789 per week for high school grads.

Of those holding bachelor’s degrees, according to, the highest-paid majors from their 2018 report include:

  • Management Information Systems: Average salary of $158,000, expected growth 15%
  • Marketing: Average salary of $131,180, expected growth 9%
  • Economics: Average salary of $101,050, expected growth 6%
  • Business Management: Average salary of $97,230, expected growth 6%
  • Finance: Average salary of $81,760, expected growth 12%
  • Accounting: Average salary of $68,150, expected growth 11%

What On-the-Job Training Offers

But what about learning on the job. Is real-world experience preferable to an academic education? On-the-job training is often free, or you may be paid. Unfortunately, many formal training programs have fallen victim to corporate spending cuts, although there are still fields where hands-on training is available.

Apprentice Programs

Industries in which guilds and unions dominate, such as construction trades like plumbing, carpentry, and electrical, have traditionally offered apprentice programs as a means of entry. All three major unions for electricians, for example, offer paid apprenticeships with on-the-job and classroom training. There is similar training for the growing fields of telecommunications installers and green-energy technicians.

However, these are not casual commitments. All of these industries require at least 2,000 hours of on-the-job learning, with some requiring as many as 4,000 to 6,000 hours. 


Chefs and other kitchen staff often start their careers by learning and earning through a combination of hands-on training and classroom work. Although culinary school is an option, it is not a requirement. The American Culinary Federation offers formal, multiyear apprenticeships, while some vocational training programs place students in internships. 


Another option for on-the-job training for white-collar work is sales. Real-estate brokerages and telephone-sales operations typically offer real-world training.

Business Owner

Probably the most extreme form of on-the-job training is entrepreneurship where starting your own business teaches you how to manage employees, cash flow, and inventory while simultaneously marketing your new business and negotiating with suppliers and customers.

Government Help

The U.S. government has put a focus on high-tech apprenticeships as a fast track to a middle-class paycheck, with the Department of Labor pledging $100 million in grants in 2020 to develop public-private apprenticeship programs in advanced manufacturing, healthcare, and information technology.

The Bottom Line

When considering the income opportunities, the decision to get a four-year degree or skilled professional training is critical when thinking about long-term earnings potential.

Even if getting a college diploma means taking on substantial debt, research suggests that throughout a career, college grads will still come out ahead financially. However, your interests, ambitions, and aptitudes should ultimately determine your approach to higher education and whether your career path begins with academia or with real-world experience. It is possible to become wealthy with only a high-school diploma; it’s just a lot less likely. 

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