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A graduate wears a decorated 2021 cap during commencement for El Modena High School
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Workers with lower levels of education occasionally can out-earn those who’ve gone on to get advanced college degrees. That’s the surprising conclusion of a new study released this week.

Lifetime earnings do typically rise with each additional level of education. But researchers from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that 16% of those whose schooling ended after high school are earning more than half of those with bachelor’s degrees. For associate’s degrees, the stats are even more impressive: 28% of workers with associate’s degrees earn more than half of workers with bachelor’s degrees.

Many concerned parents, teachers and community leaders push teens to give college a try, despite the fact that high schoolers are increasingly skeptical about the value of a college degree. The pandemic — and subsequent concerns about money — led to an unprecedented 7% drop in the number of high school graduates who enrolled in college during the fall of 2020.

But what the Center on Education and the Workforce found indicates some (but not all) of the students who are deferring college may actually end up doing better financially than their college-educated peers.

That’s not going to be the case for every student that stops at a high school education, though. What you choose to study, and who you are, matters a lot.

“More education doesn’t always get you more money,” Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Center on Education and the Workforce said in a press release. “There’s a lot of variation in earnings related to field of study, occupation and other factors.”

The top earning fields that typically require only an associate’s degree are air traffic controllers, radiation therapists and nuclear technicians, a Money analysis found in 2019. Nuclear power reactor operators and transportation, storage and distribution managers are the highest paying professions for workers who have just a high school education.

So what you study matters. Regardless of how much education you have, computer and mathematical majors, health practice, and architecture and engineering end up leading to the highest lifetime earnings, the Georgetown study found.

Factors outside of your control also have an effect. At every level of education, white workers are earning more than any other group. Geography counts, too. The highest-earning states for workers with only a high school degree are Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota.

That’s not to say that more education won’t help you increase your earning potential. It most likely will. The median lifetime earnings of someone with a master’s degree are $3.2 million — twice as much as the lifetime earnings of someone with a high school degree only. A four-year college degree also tends to shield people from major shifts in the labor force. When unemployment rates peaked during the pandemic, for example, the rate for workers with a bachelor's degree was half of that for those with a high school diploma or less college experience, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The debate about whether going to college is worth it has dragged on for more than a century at this point. President Grover Cleveland wrote about it in a 1900 essay called, “Does a College Education Pay?” Cleveland concluded that it does — despite the fact that he couldn’t afford to go to college.

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