Six-figure jobs by education attainment

The oft-repeated case for you don’t need to go to college is almost always anchored by the claim that there are plenty of six-figure jobs available to young workers who do not have a four-year degree. The story goes that others’ kids should forgo pursuing a four-year degree because some so-called professional trade is paying $100,000 right out of a high school or short-term post-secondary technical training program in welding, coding, auto mechanics, you name it.

The data tell a very different story. The first reality is there are very few six-figure jobs for young adults. Less than eight percent of 25-34 year olds had $100,000 in work earnings in 2019: 3,139,000 of the 38,016,000 25-34 year olds who worked.

The second reality is the few six-figure jobs for young workers overwhelmingly are held by those who have a four-year degree. Of the 3,139,000 25-34 year olds with work earnings of $100,000 or more 2,615,000 (83.3 percent) had a four-year degree.

In 2019 21,276,000 25-34 year olds without a four-year degree had work earnings. Of those 524,000 (2.5 percent) had work earnings of $100,000 or more. Of the 16,740,000 25-34 year olds with a four year degree 15.6 percent made six figures.

(Work earnings includes money earnings from any and all jobs: payroll jobs, gig jobs, self-employment jobs, second jobs, overtime pay, bonuses, you name it.)

You may be saying to yourself, okay the claim that there are lots of young workers without four-year degrees in six-figure jobs is exaggerated, but surely there are lots of those jobs for older workers without four-year degrees. Think again!

In 2019 there were 23,158,000 Americans 25 and older with work earnings of $100,000 or more. Of those 17,676,000 (76.3 percent) had a four-year degree. In 2019 84,735,000 25 and older without a four-year degree had work earnings. Of those 5,482,000 (6.5 percent) had work earnings of $100,000 or more. Of the 63,123,000 25 and older with a four year degree 28.0 percent made six figures.

As we have written frequently most of those telling kids not to get a four-year degree are doing the exact opposite with their own kids. Most affluent parents are preparing their children for four-year degrees from preschool on. They are doing so because they know this reality: That the most reliable path––even with a student loan––to a good-paying career is to obtain a four-year degree or more.

thinkLaw’s Colin Seale got is exactly right when in a Forbes column entitled The Equity Problem With Saying ‘College Isn’t For Everyone’ he wrote:

It is inequitable to support a “college isn’t for everyone” mentality that treats higher education as an obvious expectation for students from privileged backgrounds and as a luxury good for others. Simply put, as long as a four-year college degree continues to be a valid predictor of lifetime earnings with a multiplier effect for diverse populations, a key to long-term success in the 21st century workforce, and a reliable pathway for increased social capital, high schools ought to prepare all students to have a legitimate opportunity to successfully complete a four-year degree.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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