What Is the Correlation Between Education and Earning Power?

In general, those with higher education levels can expect to earn more money over their lifetimes than individuals with only high school diplomas or less, as of 2015. This pattern is consistent throughout the educational ladder, as individuals with advanced degrees generally earn more than four-year program graduates. However, many factors affect earning power, so a degree is not a guarantee of higher earnings.

High school graduates earn around $1.2 million over their lifetimes, according to a 2002 U.S. Census Bureau report. This number pales in comparison to the $2.1 million expected by college graduates, $2.5 million for master's degree holders, $3.4 million for those with doctorates and $4.4 million for those with professional degrees. A 2009 study measuring median incomes by education level arrived at the same conclusion, determining that high school dropouts earn an average of $23,608 annually, while high school graduates earn $32,552, college graduates earn $53,300 and advanced graduates earn $69,056. A 2014 study also found the same correlation.

College graduates are also more likely to keep and find work than their less-educated counterparts. According to the 2009 study cited above, only 5 percent of college graduates were unemployed compared to 15.6 percent of those without a high school diploma. The unemployment percentage steadily decreases as education level rises.

Increased education correlates with higher earning potentials for both genders and all racial backgrounds, but studies show that white males benefit the most from the investment. White males with bachelor's degrees earn approximately $1 million more than if they did not graduate from college, while other races average an increase of only $700,000 over their less-educated counterparts. Women see their earning potential increase by 76 percent after graduating college, but men out-earn them by around $2 million at the professional level.