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Graduating College Later in Life Doesn't Hamper Income

Graduating College Later in Life Doesn't Hamper Income

Story Highlights

  • Older grads' reported personal income equal to younger grads'
  • Older grads' well-being slightly trails younger grads'

This is the first article in a two-part series examining the life outcomes and college experience of those who earn their degree at age 25 or older.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Despite delaying their college education, nontraditional college graduates -- defined here as those who earn their degree at age 25 or older -- have personal incomes later in life that are similar to those of traditional graduates, or those who earn their degree before age 25.

Annual Personal Income, by College Graduation Type

This study is based on surveys with nearly 4,000 nontraditional college graduates and approximately 7,500 traditional college graduates who earned their degree between 1990 and 2014.

Currently, the average age of a traditional graduate who earned his or her degree between 1990 and 2014 is 33 years, compared with 45 years for nontraditional graduates. This may suggest that nontraditional graduates are "paying" for delaying their education because, all things being equal, older individuals would expect to out-earn their younger counterparts, not tie with them. But, of course, all things are not equal -- and it is likely that many of these nontraditional graduates, had they not gone back to college, would be earning much less than traditional college graduates.

Overall, these data suggest that individuals who graduate college around the same time but at different ages are currently faring equally well in terms of personal income. Still, traditional graduates likely enjoy higher lifetime earnings because they reap the economic benefits of a college degree for a longer period of time. But in terms of current income, the two groups are equal.

These results are from the Gallup-Purdue Index, a joint research effort with Purdue University and Lumina Foundation to study the relationship between the college experience and college graduates' lives. The Gallup-Purdue Index is a comprehensive, nationally representative study of U.S. college graduates with Internet access, conducted Feb. 4-March 7, 2014. According to a 2013 Census Bureau report, 90% of college graduates in the U.S. have access to the Internet.

The percentage of nontraditional college graduates has nearly doubled in recent decades, from 16% in the 1970s to 32% for 2000-2014 graduates, according to the Gallup-Purdue Index. The U.S. Department of Education notes that in recent years, the percentage of students aged 25 and older has increased faster than the percentage of younger students.

Nontraditional Graduates Have Slightly Lower Well-Being

While nontraditional graduates have current incomes similar to traditional graduates, nontraditional graduates have slightly lower well-being. They trail traditional graduates in the percentage thriving in each of the five elements of well-being measured by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index: purpose, social, financial, community and physical. The gaps are small but statistically significant in each of the elements.

A college degree may seem instrumental in boosting two of the five elements of well-being: purpose and financial. Purpose well-being is defined as liking what you do every day and being motivated to reach your goals -- and those careers that typically require a college education, such as professional or managerial roles, typically result in higher well-being. Meanwhile, a college degree tends to augment income and in turn boost financial well-being, which is defined as being able to manage your economic life and reduce stress. But for whatever reason, nontraditional graduates trail traditional graduates on both metrics.

Percentage Thriving in Well-Being, by College Graduation Type

The differing backgrounds of the two groups may partially explain nontraditional graduates' marginally lower well-being. For instance, nontraditional graduates are slightly more likely to take on student debt, which previous Gallup research has linked to lower well-being. Additionally, nontraditional graduates are more likely to be the first in their families to graduate college -- 58% of nontraditional graduates are first-generation graduates, compared with 35% of traditional graduates. Being a first-generation college graduate is linked with coming from a lower-income household, which may partially explain nontraditional graduates' lower well-being.

Although nontraditional college graduates have slightly lower well-being, a question remains as to whether attending college actually boosts their well-being. While data from the Gallup-Purdue Index cannot directly answer this question, previous Gallup research offers some guidance. Lacking a college degree or working in a "blue-collar" job that is typically the province of non-college-educated individuals is correlated with negative health behaviors and outcomes that are detrimental to well-being, including smoking, obesity, lacking health insurance and being dissatisfied with one's job. This is not to say that obtaining a college degree would directly change all of these maladies, but it could play a role in helping a student avoid or address these attitudes and behaviors.

Bottom Line

Colleges are seeing an increasing number of older students on campus, as adults look to develop new skills, change careers or simply finish their education. For many of these adults, this is a disrupting decision that requires them to balance a demanding course load with the responsibilities of adulthood, including family or work requirements. Given these sacrifices, nontraditional students want to make sure that their older age won't hinder them from being competitive with their younger counterparts in the labor market after graduation.

Data from the Gallup-Purdue Index may allay these concerns to some degree. Nontraditional college graduates enjoy similar earnings as traditional graduates. Still, traditional graduates have the benefit of obtaining a college degree -- and enjoying the higher economic status it often begets -- at an earlier age, meaning traditional graduates could probably expect higher lifetime earnings. That would suggest traditional graduates ultimately get the best return on their investment.

In terms of well-being, nontraditional graduates are at a slight disadvantage, possibly because they faced more challenging economic circumstances earlier in life. Still, there is reason to believe that getting a college degree, even later in life, may boost well-being, particularly as one earns more income.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup-Purdue Index study are based on Web interviews conducted Feb. 4-March 7, 2014, with a random sample of 29,560 respondents with a bachelor's degree or higher, aged 18 and older, with Internet access, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of bachelor's degree or higher respondents who graduated between 1990 and 2014, and are traditional college students, the margin of sampling error is ±1.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. For results based on the total sample of bachelor's degree or higher respondents who graduated between 1990 and 2014, and are nontraditional college students, the margin of sampling error is ±2.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

The Gallup-Purdue Index sample was compiled from two sources: the Gallup Panel and the Gallup U.S. Daily survey.

Learn more about how the Gallup-Purdue Index works.

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