Enrichment Education

More than half of students from a third of colleges earn less than high school grads, report

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Story at a glance

  • Roughly 60 percent of college students earn more than those with a high school diploma after 10 years.
  • Yet half of students enrolled in 30 percent of colleges earn less than high school graduates at the 10-year mark.
  • Four-year programs offer greater economic gains over a four-decade period.

Around 60 percent of college students earn more than those with a high school diploma 10 years after enrollment. But half of students enrolled in 30 percent of colleges earn less than high school graduates at the 10-year mark, new research suggests.  

The measures are the product of new research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), which analyzed data on 4,500 colleges and universities from the Education Department’s new College Scorecard to calculate the student’s net economic gain.  

CEW noted that college students who earn less than high school graduates over 10 years could be affected by low graduation rates and disparities in income by gender, race and ethnicity. 

“College typically pays off, but the return on investment varies by credential, program of study, and institution,” CEW Director Anthony P. Carnevale said in a news release. “It’s important to inform people about the risk of taking out loans but not graduating, which could leave them without the increased earnings that would help them repay those loans.”  

The research suggests that colleges offering primarily certificates and two-year degrees often lead to the best short-term economic outcomes. Twenty-five out of 30 institutions with the greatest 10-year earnings mainly granted certificates and associates degrees. 

The 10-year advantage might be attributed to fewer classes and less student loan debt. Yet, the research shows four-year programs offer greater economic gains over a four-decade period.  

Meanwhile, education at public institutions with lower tuition leads to slightly greater economic gain over both the 10- and 40-year marks.  

“We need a comprehensive career counseling system to help students and their families use this information to make decisions about college,” Martin Van Der Werf, CEW director of editorial and education policy added. 


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Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a speech last month that to “elevate” the education system, the U.S. must “transform education beyond high school so that it works for everybody, and so that it leads to well-paying, rewarding careers.” 

“As we work to make colleges more affordable and accountable, we must also make them more accessible,” he said. “That means creating stronger college and career pathways between our pre-k through grade 12 systems, our 2 and 4 year colleges, and our workforce partners so that our systems lead the world.” 


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