The Rising Cost of Not Going to College

The pay gap between college grads and those who stopped after high school is growing.

In nearly every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers who have less education.

When today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The analysis finds that college graduates ages 25 to 32 who work full time earn about $17,500 more annually than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma. The pay gap was significantly smaller in previous generations.

College-educated Millennials also are more likely to be employed full time than their less-educated counterparts (89% vs. 82%) and significantly less likely to be unemployed (4% vs. 12%).

Employed Millennial college graduates are likelier than their peers with a high school diploma or less education to say their job is a career or a steppingstone to a career (86% vs. 57%). In contrast, those with a high school diploma or less are about three times as likely as college graduates to call their work “just a job to get [them] by” (42% vs. 14%).

In 1979, when the first wave of Baby Boomers were the same age as Millennials today, a typical high school graduate earned about three-quarters (77%) of what a college graduate made. Today, Millennials with only a high school diploma earn even less: 62% of a typical college graduate’s salary. On some key measures, such as the percentage who are unemployed or the share living in poverty, this generation of college-educated adults is faring worse than Gen Xers, Baby Boomers or members of the Silent generation when they were in their mid-20s and early 30s.

Among other findings:

  • Among employed Millennials, college graduates are significantly likelier than those without any college experience to say that their education has been “very useful” in preparing them for work and a career (46% vs. 31%);
  • Better-educated young adults are more likely to say they have the necessary education and training to advance in their careers (63% vs. 41%);
  • About nine in 10 Millennials with at least a bachelor’s degree say college has already paid off (72%) or will pay off in the future (17%); and
  • Among the two-thirds of college-educated Millennials who borrowed money to pay for their schooling, 86% say their degrees have been worth it or expect that they will be in the future.