Graduating College Later in Life Doesn't Mean Earning Less

adult students exchanging notes in classKeywords20-25 years, 25-30 years, 30-35 years, 35-40 years, 40-45 years, 45-50 years

U.S. colleges and universities are seeing an increasing number of older students on campus. Defined as those who earned their degree at age 25 or older, these nontraditional students might be balancing coursework with raising a family, holding a full-time job, or other responsibilities that many of their younger peers don't have. On top of these additional demands, older college graduates may worry that they are at an economic disadvantage compared to younger graduates. A recent Gallup study indicates that they have no need to be concerned.

The results of the Gallup study suggest both nontraditional students and traditional students fare equally well in terms of personal income. Traditional graduates have higher lifetime earnings overall, since they benefit from having a college degree for a longer period of time. However, when it comes to current income, the two groups are equal.

For example, 49 percent of younger graduates (graduated between the ages of 18 and 24) earned between $24,000 to $90,000, compared to 50 percent of older graduates (age 25 and older). At the top of the income bracket, nine percent of younger graduates earned $180,000 or more, while 10 percent of older graduates did.

The data comes from the Gallup-Purdue Index, a joint research effort with Purdue University and Lumina Foundation. They surveyed nearly 4,000 nontraditional college graduates and approximately 7,500 traditional college graduates who earned their degree between 1990 and 2014.

While they have equal current incomes, nontraditional graduates were found to have a slightly lower well-being, as measured by the five elements of well-being in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. Different backgrounds, or factors unrelated to age at college graduation, may contribute to the gap.

Even if older college graduates have a slightly lower well-being, the true question is whether graduating from college ultimately boosts it. The Gallup-Purdue Index cannot directly answer that question, but if older students had not graduated from college at all, they most likely would be earning less income. Earning a better wage certainly leads to better self-esteem and well-being.

The bottom line is, whether you graduate college at age 22 or later in life, it can pay off financially. A college education is still an equalizer and it's never too late to go back to school.
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