Study Shows Higher Education Benefits Older Americans

By Vanessa Denice
Posted January 07, 2014 10:00 AM

Study Shows Higher Education Benefits Older Americans
Study Shows Higher Education Benefits Older Americans

The benefits of a college education, whether attained through an associate's, bachelor's, or master's degree, has been well documented. Many of these advantages are financial, as the right degree can put individuals in a position to succeed in the long run.

Recently, the Institute for Women's Policy Research released the results of a study that examined how a college education affects income. Similar research has focused on the starting salaries of more recent graduates, but there has been little investigation into the effect it has had on older Americans. This report, titled "How Education Pays Off for Older Americans," aimed to shed light on just that topic.

Older Americans Reap Educational Benefits

Today, there are more than 5 million Americans over the age of 65 still in the workforce. Despite their lifetime of earnings, many of these individuals lack the funds to retire, which in turn is causing them to work past the traditional retirement age. Although this group only makes up about 4% of the workforce, they are an important population to monitor, as their actions may provide a glimpse as to what younger graduates or middle-aged workers can expect in the near future. 

"Employment and earnings past the traditional retirement age have become more important to the well-being of older Americans, in part due to the increased retirement risk flowing from the shift away from defined benefit toward defined contribution pensions," the study authors wrote, as quoted by The Star-Ledger

According to the study from the IWPR, those older workers who hold a bachelor's degree earn almost three times more than those with no college experience. Additionally, workers with advanced degrees such as master's or doctorates earned, on average, three to five times more than individuals without a degree.

A Gender Gap 

One trend that stood out was the disparity in earnings between male and female degree holders. On average, older women made less than their male counterparts - in fact, women with advanced degrees earned salaries similar to men with bachelor's degrees. 

Part of this difference may be due to the fields where these individuals are working. According to The Star-Ledger, older men are typically continuing to work in high-profile, lucrative positions, such as doctors, lawyers or judges. On the other hand, many older women are working as secretaries and receptionists, which are occupations that pay lower salaries. 

Debt is Still a Problem 

While many older Americans benefit from receiving an education, many still deal with the repercussions of obtaining a degree. According to a 2012 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, almost one-third of all individuals in debt are over the age of 39, with many saddled with student debt. 

In many instances, these older individuals went back to school as adults, which contributed to their debt and the length of their repayments. 

"You know, looking back on all this, I know that the predicament I'm in is the result of choices. And I take full responsibility for my choices," Kathy Allen, one student who entered a degree program as an older adult, told the Public Insight Network of her debt. "I can't tell you how grateful I am for my education. But in some ways it was a blessing and a mistake." 

Ultimately, the advantages that go along with pursuing a degree will depend on the individual. However, with wage disparities and student debt proving to be a consistent problem, some would-be students may think twice about the type of higher education they choose. 

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