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A Degree Still Matters

August 15, 2012

Stories abound of college graduates working at Starbucks, living at home and facing an uncertain economic future. And many of these stories have led to increased questioning of the value of a college degree.

But a report released today says that -- despite the current economic hardships faced by people at all levels of education -- the value of a college degree remains strong.

The unemployment rate for recent four-year college graduates is 6.8 percent, higher than the rate for all four-year graduates of 4.5 percent. But the 6.8 percent is much, much better than the 24 percent rate for recent high school graduates. These figures, and a series of others, appear in "The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm," from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

As the name of the report suggests, the report does not claim that college graduates have been immune from the recession. The report's summary begins with this sentence: "When it rains hard enough and long enough, everyone gets a little wet."

But the report seeks to distinguish between reports of the real difficulties facing recent graduates and the idea that these hardships mean that their degrees lack genuine economic value.

What about all those college grads working at Starbucks? The report uses various databases to say that there is indeed an underemployment problem, and that the underemployment rate for new college graduates is 8.4 percent. But that is less than half of the underemployment rate for recent high school graduates, of 17.3 percent.

In terms of jobs that have been created in recent years, college graduates enjoy a strong advantage in gaining them, the report says. More than half of the jobs created during what economists call the recovery from the recession have gone to college graduates, who make up only one third of the labor force.

Of relevance given Rick Santorum's campaign blasts that some workers didn't necessarily need college degrees, the report's data show that in traditional blue collar industries, those with degrees fared much better than those without.

"Even in traditionally blue-collar industries, better educated workers fared better," the report says. "In manufacturing, employment dropped by 19 percent for workers with a high school diploma or less, but only 9 percent for workers with Bachelor’s degrees or better. In construction, employment dropped by 4 percent for workers with bachelor’s degrees or better and 24 percent for those with high school diplomas or less."

The Impact on Men

The report suggests that these statistics may be acting as a "wake-up call" for men, who in the years prior to the recession were becoming less likely than women to enroll in college. Citing data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the report says that, since the recession, the rate of increase in male enrollments has topped that of females.

"The Great Recession has produced an economic reckoning for men who stopped their education at high school or before," the report says. "Men, who in recent decades have lagged behind women in gaining postsecondary education, have been hit harder in the recession and, in response, are now growing faster than women in postsecondary enrollment. Men now realize that they need more than a high school diploma to get a job and that they shouldn’t limit themselves to fields dominated by men. They have been flocking to college at greater rates and moving into fields usually dominated by women — such as nursing — that also are more 'recession proof' and least likely to be sent overseas."

Rates of Increase in Postsecondary Enrollments, by Gender, Before and After Start of Recession

Year Men Women
2004 1.7% 2.4%
2005 0.9% 1.5%
2006 1.6% 1.5%
2007 3.2% 2.4%
2008 4.8% 4.6%
2009 7.1% 6.8%
2010 3.1% 2.7%

 

 

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