Most researchers agree that college graduates, even in rough economies, generally fare better than individuals with only high-school diplomas. But just how much better is where the math gets fuzzy.
The problem stems from the common source of the estimates, a 2002 Census Bureau report titled "The Big Payoff." The report said the average high-school graduate earns $25,900 a year, and the average college graduate earns $45,400, based on 1999 data. The difference between the two figures is $19,500; multiply it by 40 years, as the Census Bureau did, and the result is $780,000...
Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, calls it "a million-dollar misunderstanding."
One problem he sees with the estimates: They don't take into account deductions from income taxes or breaks in employment. Nor do they factor in debt, particularly student debt loads, which have ballooned for both public and private colleges in recent years. In addition, the income data used for the Census estimates is from 1999, when total expenses for tuition and fees at the average four-year private college were $15,518 per year. For the 2009-10 school year, that number has risen to $26,273, and it continues to increase at a rate higher than inflation.
Dr. Schneider estimated the actual lifetime-earnings advantage for college graduates is a mere $279,893 in a report he wrote last year. He included tuition payments and discounted earning streams, putting them into present value. He also used actual salary data for graduates 10 years after they completed their degrees to measure incomes. Even among graduates of top-tier institutions, the earnings came in well below the million-dollar mark, he says.