People with degrees earned an average of £12,000 a year more than non-graduates over the past decade, statistics show.
The mid-point salary of graduates aged 22 to 64 was £29,900, compared with £17,800 for non-degree holders, the Office for National Statistics found.
Universities ministers David Willetts said this justified asking students to pay more towards their education.
Earnings for those aged 22 averaged £15,000, regardless of degree status.
Earnings for women, with or without a degree, levelled off earlier than for men with the same level of education, the ONS found.
This could be because women are more likely to choose to start a family and take time out from working.
The ONS statistics show young people's choice of degree topic can have a significant effect on their future earning potential.
In 2010, 34% of female graduates had a degree in either health-related studies or education, compared with only 9% of male graduates.
The data showed 47% of male graduates had a degree in business and finance, sciences or engineering compared with 20% of female graduates.
Average earnings for graduates in the banking and finance industry (predominantly male) over the last decade were £37,300.
And in the public administration, education, and health industry (predominantly female) average earnings were £27,600.
Earnings for those without a degree were highest in the banking and finance industry at £20,300, compared with those in the public administration, education, and health industry at £14,700.
For men and women without a degree, earnings increased for each year of age, levelling off at the age of 30 and peaking at £19,400 at the age of 34.
For those with a degree, earnings increased faster for each year of age, levelling off at the age of 35 and peaking at £34,500 at the age of 51.
The data was compiled from the Labour Force Survey over the past 10 years and the average weekly earnings in 2010.
ONS statistician Jamie Jenkins said: "This analysis shows there is a big difference between average earnings for graduates and non-graduates.
"We also see a big difference between them by age, with graduates' earnings not peaking until they are in their early 50s.
"After this age, average wages decreased, as the higher earners leave the labour market earlier."
Universities Minister David Willetts said: "These interesting figures vindicate our approach.
"Taxpayers who don't go to university tend to earn less than those that do.
"So it's reasonable for graduates to contribute more to the cost of their education, especially given the economic problems we face as a country."