Is education still the best way to increase your earnings?

If you could go back to your 20s, would you do anything differently? Maybe you’d make better dating choices or listen to your mom when she said you shouldn’t try to bleach your hair at home. The carefree (and sometimes careless) choices we make in our youth can impact our later years, especially when it comes to education and earning. 

What’s new: A new study from Georgetown University found that the decision to pursue a degree in their 20s or not was the most important factor determining whether a person would land a “good job” by their 30s, per the Wall Street Journal.

  • It defined a “good job” as paying a median annual salary of at least US$57,000 and providing access to healthcare and retirement benefits at work.

  • The study showed that earning a bachelor’s degree by 26 years old boosted the chance of getting a good job to 56%—degree starters who never donned the cap and gown have a 40% chance. 

Yes, but: Some young people are skeptical about the influence a four-year degree has on earning potential—high debt levels and low salaries for fresh graduates can make the math seem illogical.

  • Entering a skilled trade apprenticeship is less cost-prohibitive and offers paid on-the-job training and competitive wages. 

  • In Canada, the average salary for the 20 top-earning trades (Refrigeration Technician, HVAC Installer, Mechanic, Welder) is about $80,000 a year. 

Why it matters: The study shows that while education is a key factor in earning potential, it isn’t the only factor—the field you choose to work in will play a massive part in your salary growth.  

  • The highest-paying fields in Canada are healthcare, business and tech—you do need to hit the books if you want to become a cardiologist, but self-taught software engineers are becoming more commonplace in the workforce. 

  • “If you’re working for an NGO or a non-profit or (doing) social work, you’re probably not going to make as much as someone who did an MBA,” Jessica Moorhouse told the Toronto Star.

Bottom line: An education is still the most reliable way to secure a good job, but it isn’t the only way—a consistent work history, choosing a sector that suits you and improving your work-related skillset in your early years can set you up for success down the line, with or without a four-year degree.