Is College Worth It?

November 21st, 2011 by 

Is college worth it?  The problem with that question, of course, is there is a huge range of outcomes among all of the levels of education that we recognize in America.  Two students may graduate with the same degree and work in different areas of the same profession.  Two students may graduate with the same degree in different subjects, and one subject earns a lot more (on average) than the other.  Income disparity among majors is something we can look at (and this article on college started to look at the subject), but this article is more concerned with the aggregate results over all educational categories.  Let's look into it and determine if college is still a good investment.

The Distribution of Personal Income by Terminal Education

This chart breaks down education in the United States into four categories: Those who didn't finish High School, those that did (including the 'Some College' category), those with Bachelor's Degrees, and those with any degree higher than a Bachelor's.  The giant peak on the right side is the $100,000+ category.  Data from the Census Bureau.

Income Distribution by Terminal Degree Type (2010, Census Data) Is college worth it?

Income Distribution by Terminal Degree Type (2010, Census Data)... Is college worth it?

Some of the main take home points of the graph:

  • The population without at least a Bachelor's Degree had a much higher proportion of their population earning under $35,000.
  • The categories "Never Finished High School" and "High School Graduate" approach zero quickly as the income scale increases.
  • There is a huge spike of college graduates - both Bachelor's and Advanced degree holders - making more than $100,000 a year.
  • Over 25% of those with advanced degrees make 6-figure incomes.

Who Makes Over $100,000?  And... Is College Worth It?

This next graph takes the proportion of people in the United States who earned income in 2010 and breaks them down by education.  On the same axis it shows the same breakdown, except this time for individuals earning over $100,000.  Check it out:

Proportion of Population and 0,000+ Earners by Education (2010 Census)

Proportion of Population and $100,000+ Earners by Education (2010 Census)


There you have it.  The Bachelor's Degree and higher crowd dominates the $100,000+ earner category.

Say what you will about subject choice, but people with more education earn more on average - and at every percentile - than those with less education.  The conclusion can only be one thing: College is still worth it.  Just choose your degree wisely (don't be like Kelli Space).  Even more on that in a future article?  If you ask politely.

Complain/comment/ask for more in the comments!  And don't forget to let us know your thoughts... is college worth it?



PK started DQYDJ in 2009 to research and discuss finance and investing and help answer financial questions. He's expanded DQYDJ to build visualizations, calculators, and interactive tools.

PK lives in New Hampshire with his wife, kids, and dog.

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