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Beyond BLS

Beyond BLS briefly summarizes articles, reports, working papers, and other works published outside BLS on broad topics of interest to MLR readers.

December 2023

What are the impacts of graduates receiving a college degree later in life?

Summary written by: Richard Hernandez

The path for most students who obtain a college education is thought to be straightforward. After students receive their high school diploma, they then enroll in a postsecondary educational institution to earn their college degree in their 20s—they are known as early college graduates. However, what share of college graduates finish their college education after turning 30? These college graduates are known as late bloomers. So, does the age of a person matter when obtaining a college degree? In a recent working paper, “Late bloomers: the aggregate implications of getting education later in life” (National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 31874, November 2023), authors Zsófia L. Bárány, Moshe Buchinsky, and Pauline Corblet investigate the percentage of the population who earn their degree after turning 30, the returns of a college education, and the resulting implications for the skilled workforce of obtaining a college degree later in life.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bárány and colleagues find that of people born between 1930 and 1970, around 20 percent have earned their college degree after turning 30. Furthermore, women tend to earn their degree later in life than men. The authors also discover that when they further break down the data by race, Black and Hispanic individuals are more likely to be late bloomers compared with their White counterparts. Late bloomers have contributed to shrinking the gap between the gender and racial college share. After graduating, late bloomers receive a college wage premium (the difference in pay between a bachelor’s degree holder and a high school graduate). However, wages of late bloomers are less than those of early college graduates who followed the traditional college path. But when comparing late bloomers with those without a college degree, the authors find that late bloomers substantially outearn them.

In their working paper, the authors also explore how late bloomers affect the college share of overall workers. They find that since 1960, late bloomers have increased the aggregate supply of the skilled workforce, and their share is increasing with each cohort group. The authors point out that to understand the varying returns of earning a college degree at different ages, researchers should further investigate the reason people return to college at various ages later in life. They suggest that learning and comparing the different forces that drive early college graduates and late bloomers would benefit policymakers who implement educational public policies.