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This is how your university grade affects your salary, years later

If you're currently a student and you can't quite be bothered to go the extra mile to get a good grade, or you graduated with a mediocre pass, you could be afflicted by lower pay for the rest of your adult life. 

So says a new study from the University of Michigan Law School.

The school tracked the grades and salaries of law school students and alumni from 1967 to 2006 and looked at the pay of a total of 912 alumni at between 14, 24 and 34 years after graduation. It found that the higher students' GPA, the higher their pay.

As the chart below shows, 14 years after graduation students with the lowest grades at law school who worked in private practice earned around 60% of the pay of students with the highest grades. 24 years after graduation they were earning half as much; 34 years after graduation they were still earning 46% less. 

Over the course of a working life, this adds up to over $5m less in total pay before tax if you graduate at the bottom of your class instead of the top.

The numbers are specific to legal careers (and to private practice) but likely apply to other professional services careers like banking and consulting. The university suggests various reasons for the disparity, including the fact that the students with the highest grades are likely in possession of, 'strong analytic skills, craftiness at figuring out what others want, good work habits,'  which equip them to earn more money.

However, they note too that high grades often mean a good first job and that, 'having been given this initial break, those with high grades keep getting breaks and keep making money for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their special talents.'

Both explanations seem to hold. Analysis of the figures also showed that the more a graduate earned in his or her first job, the more he or she was likely to earn 15, 25 or 35 years later, and that even among graduates who had similar first-year incomes the ones with higher grades earned more years later than the ones with lower grades over time.

In particular, Michigan's figures suggest it's comparatively hard to earn $1m+ years after graduation if you were a weak student. Only 11% of students from the bottom fifth fell into this group, compared to 39% of students from the top fifth. An even smaller 9% of bottom-performing students fell into the $500k to $1m salary band. 

Studying hard and having a high income isn't everything, though. Interestingly, Michigan found that high performing students who earned big money years after graduating were highly satisfied with their incomes but comparatively dissatisfied with the social value of their work. The opposite was the case for poorer performing students who went into the public sector.

Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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