People with a four-year degree earn much more money over the course of their career than those who don't have one. Since 2012, however, the biggest gains in income have been made by made by people who haven’t even completed their high school education, according to a Pew Research analysis of Census Bureau data.

That's sort of a deceptive picture, because those with less education still make much less money than those with college degrees. But the shortage of available workers has pushed wages higher at jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, which has been good (on a relative basis) for people with lower levels of formal education.

Graduates in robes throw their hats in the air.

Graduating from college gives you much higher earning power. Image source: Getty Images.

A look at the numbers

Since 2012, median income in households headed by someone age 25 or older has increased 13% across all education levels from $57,100 to $64,800 in 2018. Households led by adults with some high school education, but who did not graduate, increased by 14% during this time period, while the income of households headed by someone with a bachelor's degree only rose by 8%. Households headed by someone with a Ph.D. rose by 5%, while the income of those with professional degrees (like doctors and lawyers) gained 13%, and households headed by someone with a master's degree saw a 9% improvement.

"While the median income of less-educated households has increased since 2012, it is still much lower than that of households headed by individuals with more education," wrote Pew's Richard Fry. "And less-educated households are earning a smaller share of the nation's total income."

Income gains by education since 2012

  % Gain 2012 income 2018 income
Total 13% $57,100 $64,800
Grade 9-12 14% $25,600 $29,200
HS grad 6% $43,700 $46,100
Some college 8% $53,700 $57,800
Associate 4% $63,000 $65,600
Bachelor's 6% $88,300 $93,500
Master's 9% $101,200 $110,300
Professional 13% $142,200 $160,000
Ph.D. 5% $128,300 $135,200

Data source: Pew Research

What does this mean?

This study shows that there is a clear value in getting a college degree, and even more value in earning an advanced degree. Education clearly pays off, as even just finishing high school means that on a median basis you will earn over $16,000 more per year. Finish a bachelor's degree and the median salary doubles compared to those with a high school education, and triples compared to those who have not earned a high school diploma.

Essentially, the biggest investment you can make in yourself is education. The more of it you get, the higher your earnings potential.

These numbers, of course, are not rules. If you get a Ph.D. in philosophy -- well, you might not make $135,200 a year, because "college professor" is likely your only logical career path and professors don't generally make that much.

Be smart about how you invest in your education or that of your children, but make it a priority. People with diplomas and degrees earn more than those who don't have them on a broad basis, so take the steps you need to put yourself in position to make the most money.