We often talk about college dropouts as if they just wasted money going to college. They took out all those loans an now they’re no better off, economically or professionally, than if they’d just stopped at high school, because they have no college degree.

That’s not really true. According to a recent study performed by the Hamilton Project, college dropouts still earn more than mere high school graduates. The Huffington Post explains:

It’s easy to see why more struggled to pay off their loans: Those with a bachelor’s degree earn on average $32,000 more than those who’ve completed just some college.

College dropouts’ lifetime earnings are roughly $100,000 higher (in present value) than that of their people who never went beyond high school.

But the new report notes those with some college still earn $8,000 more per year than those with only a high school diploma. The report also notes that the national unemployment rate reported last week in the combined category that includes those with some college or an associate’s degree was 6.5 percent – below the national average of 7.6 percent for people 25 and over. The rate was 7.4 percent for high school graduates with no college, and 3.8 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Why do even dropouts earn more? It’s a little hard to tell, at least in part because the study seems to treat everyone with “some college” the same. That means that someone who took one remedial course at a community college gets lumped in with someone who took four years of courses at Princeton and is merely missing a gym credit.

But there are several things that could explain how this happens. They probably all factor into the higher earnings reported.

1. Just taking some courses in college helps improve one’s skills somewhat in the job market. Especially if someone’s applying to jobs in the same region where he attended college (and probably high school), letting employers know which course he took in college, even if he didn’t graduate, might be very helpful. Certainly a few courses in automotive repair or accounting might make someone look a little more attractive to employers than people who merely stopped at high school.

2. College attendance is a reflection of social class and intellectual capability. In the famous cases of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, they went to college because they were smart and college was expected of them; but completing all the courses needed in college weren’t really necessary to do the sort of technology entrepreneurship that appealed to them.

These billionaires are exceptions, for sure, but they might reflect something that’s going on in college; we hire people who went to college because we want people to be able to perform professionally and come up with new ideas. Perhaps that happens because of college, but it might also be a reflection of family background. If someone’s from a professional family he’s going to start college because that’s how high school tracking works, but he doesn’t really need to finish college in order to be a high-performing professional adult.

3. Another, related, explanation is that one doesn’t need to finish college in order to get the sort of professional jobs that are generally thought to “require” a college degree. A friend of mine from college is a few credits shy of a degree. He’s been planning to finish eventually, but almost a decade later he’s never gotten around to it. He’s had a whole series of jobs of varying degrees of professional responsibly. He’s now the vice president of network development for a tech start-up.

When occasionally he’s looking to get a new job he simply writes on his resume that he attended college for four years, was on the dean’s list, and studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and philosophy. All of this information is accurate, and a potential employer might assume he earned a degree, but he actually didn’t. Another friend of mine is a merchandising manager at a fashion company who does a similar thing with her resume; so far it’s never prevented her from getting a job.

If you’re a few credits shy of a college degree, it doesn’t really matter so much; you’ve essentially got a degree and can make money pretty much as if you did obtain it.

Daniel Luzer

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