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The Million Dollar Lie

Updated on December 25, 2009

Have You Fallen for the Million Dollar Lie?

In July of 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau release a report entitled, "The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings."  At the time this report didn't make huge waves, because it confirmed what everybody thought was true all along. This is a report that was supposed to prove the value of a college education, specifically focusing on the "fact" that kids who went to college make a lot more money over a lifetime than kids who don't.  You have heard teachers, politicians, and the media claim that graduating from college means you are going to make a million dollars more in a life time than a standard high school graduate.  The only problem is, as literally tens of thousands of college graduates have learned the hard way after it was too late, is that those numbers just aren't true, and the report even suggests as much. Too bad teachers, politicians, and the media either did not read this report closely, or they just assumed they could lie to you without being caught.  Whether the intent was evil or a misunderstanding or ignorance, there is very little argument that the one million dollar figure is a lie.

College Debt Pictures

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And that's about enough to pay for one month of my college student loans...This is about what I have left after making my monthly loan payments.Abuse of credit cards often happens from college grads who don't know how else to make ends meet after school.That student loan interest really adds up.  Ouch!
And that's about enough to pay for one month of my college student loans...
And that's about enough to pay for one month of my college student loans...
This is about what I have left after making my monthly loan payments.
This is about what I have left after making my monthly loan payments.
Abuse of credit cards often happens from college grads who don't know how else to make ends meet after school.
Abuse of credit cards often happens from college grads who don't know how else to make ends meet after school.
That student loan interest really adds up.  Ouch!
That student loan interest really adds up. Ouch!

4 to 7 Missing Working Years

The first obvious major problem with the so-called million dollar report is that the numbers they use come from working ages 25-64.  This means the study only considers the money earned in those years...even though most of my buddies with high school degrees did not wait 7 years to start working. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that most 18 year olds don't get to wait 7 years before working, either.

That means if a high school graduate makes $25,000 a year (which can be done at a gas station, much less a factory job), not an unreasonable estimate, for only the 4 years that a college graduate is attending college, there is a swing in the numbers of $100,000.  And that's assuming that the high school worker doesn't get a single raise in 4 years, which doesn't seem to likely even in the crappiest jobs.  Not even counting the 4 year advantage in earnings that a high school graduate has over a person attending college skews the numbers in a really blatant and irresponsible manner.  There is also a value to the work experience being gained by the high school graduate that a person attending college is not receiving.

Don't Go To College

What About Debt?

What else does a college graduate have that a high school graduate does not?  The answer is a college graduate gets into MASSIVE DEBT. This might not affect the earnings portion of the study, but forgetting that a college graduate on average is going to owe around $25,000 on the low end (numbers provided by is one of the biggest "oversights" of the study. 

College graduates are not going to just pay those $25,000 in loans back, but $25,000 that has an interest anywhere between 5-12% or more.  That easily turns into a $50,000 debt, maybe much much more.  What about the students who borrow upwards of $100,000 in student loans?  I have no idea how they are suppose to pay that money back!

To make matters even worse, according to the USA Today, student loan defaults are at their highest rate since 1998.  Trying to manage that much debt with a $30,000 a year job is next to impossible, especially when you consider the other things you want to purchase after college, like a house and a new car, and God help you if you have a family with kids on the way.

ABC News Questions Degree Value

Is a College Degree a Rip Off?

Is a college degree a rip off?  Well looking at the "million dollar" report, it becomes a basic math problem.  Anyone who reads the report will see that this study has some basic math problems when figuring out the numbers.  What this study does is take the years you worked between the ages of 25 and 64, so 40 years total, and multiples that by what the average college graduate or high school graduate makes a year according to the 2000 census. 

So in the case of College graduates, they make an average of $52,200 a year multiple that by 40, and an average college graduate makes $2,088,000.  The census shows that an average high school graduate makes $30,400 which we multiple by 40 and get $1,216,000. $2,088,000 - $1,216,000 = $872,000, the difference between college graduates earnings and a high school graduates earnings. 

The first problem I have is that this doesn't even equal a million dollars more, so I’m not sure where the million dollar number is coming from.  $128,000 is a pretty big margin of error. 

Secondly, we are assuming you work every year for those 40 years.  Unemployment can always hit, and this last recession has shown white collars and degree holders were hit as hard or harder than any other group. Third, we are also assuming you start at that average rate, and you always make that much.  What if you start at $30,000 and it takes you 25 years to get to a pay of $54,000...then the numbers are off by a tremendous amount. 

Last, the average pay each group makes is going to be unbalanced due to the inclusion of the top money getters, and the poorest people of each group.  Some college graduates make a million dollars a year because they inherited a job from an already rich Mommy and Daddy while there are some high school graduates who just want to be drifters and have no desire to work.  So what REALLY is the average pay for the common college graduate and high school graduate?  That is the real number that needs to be used. 

In addition, the average pay needs to be broken down by college major.  Sorry to break it to you, but history majors, English majors, and philosophy majors will never make as much as engineers.

Oh, By the Way, Real World Wages Are Sexist

College is an even worse deal for women. The biggest injustice currently being done by this study is that potentially valuable findings in this study, such as wide income differences between men and women, are being swept under the rug and ignored just so they can lie about college being a million dollar investment. 

The shocking part of this study is that women, according to the study's numbers, who graduate from college will make about $1.6 million dollars in a lifetime.  Women who graduate from high school will make about $1.0 million dollars in a lifetime, a difference of only $600,000, nowhere near the one million dollar mark.  When you add on the years of work missed by going to college, as well as the debt received by going to college, is college really even worth it for women?


A closer examination of the numbers shows that the average college graduate is not going to make a million dollars more (including debt) than the average high school graduate.  And none of this is even considering the difference that comes when high school graduates start a 401-k or IRA right after working. The damage being done by this study is enormous, constantly encouraging people to borrow more and more money to get a college degree that is worth far less than advertised.  This is all being done under false pretenses, and it is something that should be stopped

To make matters worse, the real million dollar difference comes between women with a college degree and men with a college degree, and yet nothing is being mentioned about that.  We are not advocating sitting at home after high school, never experiencing life, and never trying to better yourself.  All we are saying is take a close look at the numbers and make an educated decision about college being right for you instead of following the lemmings off the cliff.

Comments on the Million Dollar Lie?

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    • Roland L Daye profile image

      Roland L Daye 

      6 years ago from United States

      The million dollar figure is definitely a lie. I highly recommend reading "College Is For Suckers: The FIRST College Guide You Should Read" by April Norhanian (who has a graduate degree, by the way -- in a computer field). Her argument is well laid-out and presents both sides fairly. For me, the irony is that of the two people (of the friends) I know who earn the most, one graduated high school, but just barely, and never stepped foot in a college classroom, while the other, who is very intelligent and a hard worker, was forced to drop out of high school so he could work full-time to support his parents. The latter guy never even got a GED. Well, they're both in management positions, drive nice cars, and own nice homes. When everybody else was in school, they were gaining real-world experience and proving their worth to their respective employers, and made it up the ladder fast. Meanwhile, most of my managers never made it beyond high school, and some earn double, triple, quadruple what I make (no kidding). A desire to earn more money is not the only reason one should pursue higher education, but considering the cost of higher education, it's definitely a major thing to take into consideration.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I didn't go to college. I went to truck driving school. During my second year as a truck driver, I was earning over 55k, and I had not reached the median pay scale within my company.

      It amazes me how the people who claim to be the most intelligent cannot figure out how these colleges gather their data for the 1 million dollar lie. Of course college graduates will earn over 1 million dollars more when doctors, lawyers, politicans and ceo's are included in the statistics. Average what the *average* college student earns and you will discover that they don't earn much more than your average, blue collar Joe.

      I live in a neighborhood with teachers, social workers and engineers. Many of which are still paying off student loans, mind you. My debt to truck driving school was paid off in less than 1.5 years. Having no children helps, too. Avoid breeding when you are in debt.

      The value of the 4 year degree will only become less valuable as more and more people enroll. I wonder how long it will be until a master's degree is the new high school diploma? If only teachers would push the trades more often instead of pressuring students to enroll into college. Heck, even my teachers were adamant that I should avoid becoming a truck driver. All of them told me to enroll in college, even though I expressed that I wanted to be a truck driver.

      My advice to prospective college students: study fields that are high in demand. Anything in the math and hard sciences will do. Please research the average incomes of teachers, social workers and paramedics before jumping in with the expectation that you will be earning 25k more than Joe truck driver in your lifetime.

    • kripkrip420 profile image


      7 years ago from In relation to what?

      Wow. Well put. What a world we live in. Fantastic Hub! Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      Richard J. Byrne 

      7 years ago

      You have expressed my ideas. Rich kids earn more even if they flunk out. Restricted professions earn more. The rest of us wind up as insurance adjusters and pizza waitresses.this was expressed in 1960 in Playboy. it is more than just pictures.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      College is for fools, let me get this straight, you want me to pay thousands of dollars for something I can teach myself out of a book ? I think I'll pass thanks.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I agree the debt is big. Here's something to think about. A life time college student. Debt is real big, working full time not worrying about student bills. In fact you get to change careers as well. I'm in school to be a Doctor. But after that I'm going to get a degree in art to learn how to make dresses and formal jackets after that I'm going to school to learn how to make sculpture. After that I'm going to school to learn how to appraise art. I'm taking it one degree at a time. By the time I get out of school with all those degrees I think I'll be sixty years old have a lot of degrees and be thinking about real estate. This loan thing doesn't make truthful sense. I think that The health care system should pay a lot of the students schooling cost and take a piece of the person pay check. I think we should all work out of country to get rid of the taxes we would have to pay and the piece that would get taken out of the pay check should be half or more of the persons pay check! Did anybody see the finished product of the Obama health reform that the politicians put his name on? It is a sorry form of advertising what is out there already. Wow that's a lie to Americans I went to the site expecting to get health insurance for me because I do not make 10 000 a year and there was ads like you see on other stupid scam sites that told me to go to another site to see the facts and then I got to the site and it said facts about health insurance and then to go to another site to see other facts. Did America hit bankruptcy a few years ago and is not telling anyone? I'm 20 years old 2010.

    • Jerry G2 profile image

      Jerry G2 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, IA

      Amen, bro. Look at the bright side, at least you didn't get suckered like me and end up in graduate school, too. Ouch. Keep hammering away and keep spreading the truth about college, and maybe we can give some kids a better idea of what they're getting into than we had. Amazing how deceptive that million dollar quote is when you read the study, isn't it? Peace.


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