Education pays off, in general. But sometimes, so does luck, grit, and natural smarts. The top 10% of earners who didn't go to college earn more than the typical college grad.
The highest earners? They're the highest learners.
The most interesting data compares earnings by education. The above graph looks within groups of similar education attainment and breaks down the weekly earnings of the richest and poorest in that group. For example, the "Not HS" group represents adults who never graduated from high school. The poorest 10 percent within that group earns less than $300 a week. Moving right along the graph, the typical non-high-school grad (at 50th percentile) earns just shy of $500 a week. The richest decile of non-high-school grads make $830 every week. That's more than the typical worker with partial college experience and more than the poorest 10% of advanced degree earners.
Like I said, the simplest explanation for this graph is that education is an investment that you should expect will pay off. Every step up the education ladder results in higher earnings in the aggregate.
But another conclusion you could reach from this graph is that the luckiest/most talented 10 percent of high school graduates who don't go to college (represented by the far right red dot) actually earn more than the typical college graduate. Educational attainment is directional, not destiny.