Does the Gender Pay Gap Explain Why Women Complete College at Higher Rates Than Men?

U.S. women today are more likely than men to enroll in and complete college.1 However, women’s higher rates of college enrollment and completion may be partly explained by the persistent gender wage gap. In 2020, among full-time, year-round workers, women earned less money than men at every education level. In fact, women need to earn at least an extra degree to receive the same earnings as men with less education. In 2020, women with high school diplomas had about the same median earnings as men with less than a ninth-grade education. Women with bachelor’s degrees fare much better than women with lower levels of education, but their earnings are still far below those of men with bachelor’s degrees and are similar to those of men with associate degrees.2

For a historical perspective on the gender wage gap, read PRB’s 2017 Population Bulletin, “Losing Ground: Young Women’s Well-Being Across Generations in the United States.” (Note: The figure above is updated from the “Losing Ground” bulletin.)


  1. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, “Table A-2: Percent of People 25 Years and Over Who Have Completed High School or College, by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex: Selected Years 1940 to 2020.” 
  2. Professional degrees are degrees granted after at least three years of full-time academic work beyond a bachelor’s degree and include professions such as lawyer, physician, and dentist.