Without a high school diploma

Mark Agnor / Shutterstock
Digging for dollars: A job as a mine shuttle car operator could earn you $56,890 a year.

Median annual income for women Median annual income for men Unemployment rate
Less than 9th grade $12,735 $22,679 5.6%
9th to 12th grade $14,176 $23,649 5.6%

Highest-paid jobs

  • Mine shuttle car operators: $56,890
  • Continuous mining machine operators: $54,620
  • Rotary drill operators, oil and gas: $53,980

Trying to get by without a high school diploma is not easy, especially if you’re a woman. The $9,000 gender gap is huge when you’re earning this little.

On average, women with less than a 9th grade education earned only $595 above the Department of Health and Human Services’ benchmark for poverty.

The unemployment rate among Americans without a diploma was the highest of any education level, and was also higher than the national average of 3.9% in 2018.

With a high school diploma

Nuclear technician
hafakot / Shutterstock
Money and power: A job as a nuclear reactor operator could earn you $93,370 a year.

Median annual income for women Median annual income for men Unemployment rate
High school diploma $21,133 $36,476 4.1%

Highest-paid jobs

  • Nuclear power reactor operators: $93,370
  • Transportation, storage and distribution managers: $92,460
  • First-line supervisors of police and detectives: $87,910

More people are getting their high school diploma than ever before. In 2017, the number of Americans over the age of 25 who had a diploma reached 90% for the first time.

It’s easy to see why more Americans are motivated to finish high school. Grads not only earn more on average but they also gain access to a number of high-earning fields.

Unfortunately, as salaries grow, so does the gender gap. On average, women earned $15,343 less per year than their male counterparts.

People with diplomas were less likely to be unemployed than those without (a difference of 1.5 percentage points) but still a bit more likely than the national average.

With college experience, but no degree

Electronics repairer
Oleksiy Mark / Shutterstock
Don't be shocked: A job as an electronics repairer could earn you $78,410 a year.
Median annual income for women Median annual income for men Unemployment rate
College experience $26,498 $42,379 3.7%

Highest-paid jobs

  • Electrical and electronics repairers: $78,410
  • First-line supervisors of firefighting and prevention workers: $76,170
  • Ship engineers: $73,110

Workers with college experience but no degree earn more than those who only have a high school diploma, but not by much: a little over $5,000 per year for women and just under $6,000 for men.

It’s worth noting that most of the top-paying jobs for this education level require the completion of a specialized post-secondary non-degree program, as well as work experience and on-the-job training.

The highest-paying field that doesn’t have work experience requirements is aircraft mechanic, which had a median annual income of $61,020 in 2017.

The gender pay gap gets slightly wider when workers have some college experience, with women earning $15,881 less per year than men.

This is the first level of educational attainment that provided a bit of job security in 2018, with an unemployment rate below the national average.

With an associate’s degree

Air traffic controller
Burben / Shutterstock
Sky-high wages: A job as an air traffic controller could earn you $124,540 a year.
Median annual income for women Median annual income for men Unemployment rate
Associate’s degree $30,957 $50,034 2.8%

Highest-paid jobs

  • Air traffic controllers: $124,540
  • Radiation therapists: $80,570
  • Nuclear technicians: $80,370

An associate’s degree is an undergraduate degree that typically takes two years of full-time study to complete.

Although workers with associate’s degrees do earn more, on average, than people with only some college experience, the difference isn’t as large as you might expect. Women only earn $4,459 more per year, and men earn $7,655 more.

Workers do gain more potential, though, as associate’s degrees can unlock some lucrative jobs. In 2017, the highest-paying occupation for people with an associate’s degree (air traffic controller) paid over $46,000 more than the highest-paying occupation available to people with only some college experience (electrical repairer).

And the BLS projects that one of the top-paying fields at this level of education, dental hygienist, will add 17,500 new jobs every year until 2026.

At this education level, women earn roughly $19,000 less than men.

With a bachelor’s degree

CEO and staff
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock
Big bucks for a big responsibility: A job as a chief executive could earn you $183,270 a year.
Median annual income for women Median annual income for men Unemployment rate
Bachelor’s degree $43,951 $65,981 2.2%

Highest-paid jobs

  • Chief executives: $183,270
  • Computer and information systems managers: $139,220
  • Architectural and engineering managers: $137,720

A bachelor’s degree typically requires twice as much time to complete as an associate’s degree, but the rise in income is substantial: almost $13,000 more for women and close to $16,000 more for men.

The trend doesn’t always hold true, though. The BLS found that, in 2017, the top-paying fields for people with a bachelor’s degree paid better than six of the seven top-paying fields for people with a master’s degree.

Just keep in mind that most of the highest-paid fields for people with bachelor’s degrees require work experience in a related occupation.

The gender pay gap continues to widen for people with bachelor’s degrees, with the median annual income for women falling $22,000 short of what men earn.

With a master’s degree

Nurse anesthetist
UfaBizPhoto / Shutterstock
Truly stunning: A job as a nurse anesthetist could earn you $165,120 a year.
Median annual income for women Median annual income for men Unemployment rate
Master’s degree $56,545 $85,600 2.1%

Highest-paid jobs

  • Nurse anesthetists: $165,120
  • Political scientists: $115,110
  • Computer and information research scientists: $114,520

A master’s degree usually takes one to two years of full-time study to complete and often requires a bachelor’s degree, to boot.

Although workers with their master’s do earn more on average than workers who just have their bachelor’s ($12,594 more for women and $19,619 more for men), as mentioned above, a master’s isn’t necessary to slip into some of the highest-paying fields out there.

Plus, the unemployment rate only gets 0.1 percentage points lower.

The gender pay gap hits almost $30,000 at this level. And, as is true at every stage on this list, women earn less than men do even when men have less education. A woman with a master’s degree can expect to earn $9,436 less than a man with a bachelor’s degree.

With a professional or doctoral degree

Nazarenko LLC / Shutterstock
A cut above: A job as a surgeon could earn you $251,890 a year.
Median annual income for women Median annual income for men Unemployment rate
Professional degree $77,868 $120,030 1.5%
Doctoral degree $77,412 $100,658 1.6%

Highest-paid jobs

  • Anesthesiologists: $265,990
  • Surgeons: $251,890
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeons: $242,740

A professional degree is a degree that prepares someone to do a specific job, like a lawyer. A doctoral degree usually takes three to six years to complete and requires a bachelor’s or master’s.

Although a doctoral degree can take years longer to attain than a professional degree, the figures from 2018 show that people with a professional degree can earn considerably more money.

That said, women will see less benefit from picking up a professional degree. Here, the gender pay gap is at its absolute worst, as women with such degrees earned $42,162 less than men.

(BLS data on median wages isn’t available for jobs above $208,000, so for this category the wages for highest-paid jobs are the mean, instead.)


Employment Prospects By Education, 2018
Median annual income for women Median annual income for men Unemployment rate
No diploma (less than 9th grade) $12,735 $22,679 5.6%
No diploma (9th to 12th grade) $14,176 $23,649 5.6%
High school diploma $21,133 $36,476 4.1%
College experience, no degree $26,498 $42,379 3.7%
Associate’s degree $30,957 $50,034 2.8%
Bachelor’s degree $43,951 $65,981 2.2%
Master’s degree $56,545 $85,600 2.1%
Professional degree $77,868 $120,030 1.5%
Doctoral degree $77,412 $100,658 1.6%

Next steps

Now that you’ve seen how much more you can earn with a higher degree, you might be tempted to hit the books and go back to school.

Luckily, this is an ideal time to pursue a new career path. Student loan interest rates are currently at record lows due to the pandemic, helping reduce the burden of today’s high tuition fees.

However, if higher education isn’t a viable option for you right now, you may be able to boost your income in other ways, like starting a side business or investing in the stock market.

Or, if you just want to fatten up your wallet a bit, you can check out our handy guide on 17 ways to make extra cash this month.

About the Author

Shane Murphy

Shane Murphy


Shane is a reporter for MoneyWise. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English Language & Literature from Western University and is a graduate of the Algonquin College Scriptwriting program.

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