For years, despite the rising cost of college, the increasing burden of undergraduate debt, and the difficulty college graduates have finding professional jobs, there’s been one number that explains why college is worth it: $800,000. That’s the difference between the lifetime earnings of a high school graduate and a college graduate. But that number might be false. According to an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

The problem stems from the common source of the estimates, a 2002 Census Bureau report titled “The Big Payoff.” The report said the average high-school graduate earns $25,900 a year, and the average college graduate earns $45,400, based on 1999 data. The difference between the two figures is $19,500; multiply it by 40 years, as the Census Bureau did, the result is $780,000.

Of course, as is often true with averages touted by policy organizations, that $800,000 was never a real number; it was a metaphor for the importance of college and a professional career. The trouble is, especially with the focus on education debt, many are now starting to think the metaphor was misleading.

One problem is that $800,000 doesn’t account for income taxes or occasional unemployment. It also doesn’t account for education debt

Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research decided to look at the numbers again. According to the article, Schneider:

Estimated the actual lifetime-earnings advantage for college graduates is a mere $279,893 in report he wrote last year. He included tuition payments and discounted earning streams, putting them into present value. He also used actual salary data for graduates 10 years after they completed their degrees to measure incomes. Even among graduates of top-tier institutions, the earnings came in well below the million-dollar mark, he says.

Of course that $279,893 figure Schneider arrived at in 2009 isn’t a small amount of money, but it’s pretty far away from $800,000.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer