A Census Bureau survey released Thursday shows a college graduate can expect to earn $2.1 million working full-time between ages 25 and 64, which demographers call a typical work-life period.
A master's degree-holder is projected to earn $2.5 million, while someone with a professional degree, such as a doctor or lawyer, could make even more than $4.4 million.
In contrast, a high school graduate can expect to make $1.2 million during the working years, according to the bureau report that tracked the influence of education on lifetime earnings.
Not all students look at college as an investment, "but I'm sure parents do," said Jacqueline King, policy analyst with the American Council of Education, a higher education advocacy group. "The challenge is to convince those high school students on the margins is that it is really worth their time to go to college."
Kevin Malecek, a graduate student in American politics at American University in Washington, said most of his classmates find higher education to be worth the time and financial commitment.
"They go to every single class, and they are trying to get the most out of their own dollar," he said.
The survey was conducted between March 1998 and March 2000. All estimates are based on 1999 salaries and probably will increase as salaries rise over time, Census Bureau analyst Jennifer Day said.
The estimates do not account for inflation or for differences in the earning potential of various fields of study. For example, people with computer science degrees tend to earn more than those with social work degrees.
"It's pretty integral right now that you have a bachelor's degree," said Kaydee Bridges, a senior studying international relations at Georgetown University. "It is an investment and it's a lot of money."
Disparities remained between men and women, especially among older workers with higher degrees. Men with professional degrees may expect to earn almost $2 million more than women with the same level of education.
More men hold better-paying executive positions in corporations, hospitals and law firms, Day said. Also, more women than men leave work to care for children and women often do not return to their jobs full-time after childbirth.
Non-Hispanic whites can expect to make slightly more than minorities on all schooling levels except among the most educated. Among people with any type of graduate degree (including doctors and lawyers), Asians and whites are expected to make $3.1 million.
Americans overall continue to stay in school longer. In 2000, 84 percent of adults 25 and older had at least a high school degree, and 26 percent had a bachelor's degree or more, both records.
The survey was conducted separately from the 2000 census. The bureau last released such figures in 1992, though the estimates are not directly comparable because they have not been adjusted for inflation.
In 1992, a high school graduate could expect to make $820,870 at work between 25 and 64. A college graduate could make $1.4 million, while a professional degree-holder could make more than $3 million.