A new study provides a dramatic answer to the question nagging potential college students: Is college worth it?
The short answer is yes, according to a study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
For the first time in U.S. history, people with college degrees make up a larger portion of the workforce than those with high school diplomas, the report found. And the recovery from the 2007-09 recession has barely made a dent in bringing back the jobs people with high school diplomas used to count on for decent pay and benefits.
Although the economy has created 11.6 million new jobs since the recession, 11.5 million have gone to workers with at least some education beyond high school, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the center and author of the study done with Tamara Jayasundera and Artem Gullish.
In addition, workers with some post-secondary education have captured the vast majority of the good jobs, the researchers said. They define “good” jobs as those that are full time, pay more than $53,000 a year and provide benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans.
Workers with bachelor’s degrees, or higher, now make up 36 percent of the workforce. The workers with high school diplomas are less than 34 percent of the workforce. That’s down 5 percentage points from 2007, when the economy began to crash.
Of the 7.2 million jobs lost in the recession, about 5.6 million of the jobs that vanished had been held by people with high school diplomas or less. And they have recovered only 1 percent of those jobs over the past six years, the researchers note. Only 80,000 jobs held by workers with high school diplomas or less have been added since the recession.
There has been “no growth of well-paying jobs with benefits” for the group that didn’t go beyond high school, Carnevale said. The result has been an increasingly divided country, with “college haves and college have-nots,” he said. The people with college degrees have incomes that have averaged 80 percent more than high school graduates over a lifetime.
The nation still is feeling the hangover from the recession. The economy still is missing 6 million jobs that would have been created if the recession hadn’t occurred, he said, and construction employment is still 1.6 million jobs short of its 2007 level, while manufacturing has 1 million fewer jobs. Construction and manufacturing in the past have provided some of the best jobs for workers at lower education levels.
But Carnevale does not see the current job and income divide as a short-term issue resulting from the rough years set in motion by the recession. While the recession sped up job losses in industries such as manufacturing, Carnevale has traced the erosion of opportunity for people without college degrees to the 1980s.
Many jobs require more elaborate skills than they once did. For example, he said a person with a high school diploma used to make a fine auto mechanic if he had good mechanical skills. Now, computers are key to operating cars, so mechanics need electronic skills as well. The same applies to the factory floor.
The growth in jobs now is in health care, consulting, business, education, government and financial services. Those industries accounted for 28 percent of the workforce in 1947, and now account for 46 percent, the researchers noted.
Yet, old-style service jobs such as clerical work have been cut sharply because computers now make it possible for managers to do their own typing and take on responsibilities once done by clerical staff.
Carnevale said critics of college did not seem to realize that people with high school diplomas or less had unemployment rates about 22 percent. Also workers who had graduated from college lost about $5,000 a year in wages compared to $6,000 for those with no college.
Now, Carnevale said, income data make it clear that “if you don’t go to college, you will do a lot worse.” But while true on average, people evaluating future education need to see choices as more complex than simply going to college or not going to college.
Beyond going to college, the choice of majors and careers is also critical to outcomes, he said.
People who major in the humanities, early childhood education or psychology have a 30 to 40 percent chance of not making any more than high school graduates, he said.
Yet, if college graduates in the humanities get master’s degrees, they raise their pay. Meanwhile, engineers do better with bachelor’s degrees than master’s degrees. Thirty percent of people with two-year associate degrees make more than college graduates, and those with certificates in heating and ventilation and computers do especially well.
The study notes that the number of jobs for workers with associate degrees or some college has increased by 47 percent since 1989, to 43.5 million from 30 million. Meanwhile, jobs for people with bachelor’s degrees or higher has doubled, to 54.2 million from 26 million.
Yet, jobs for workers with high school diplomas or less declined by 13 percent over the same period, with a loss of 7.3 million jobs.
Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of “Saving for Retirement Without Living Like a Pauper or Winning the Lottery.”