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Graduation ceremony at Northern Virginia Community College


The college degree has solidified its role as the best ticket to the middle class.

With the title “Good Jobs That Pay Without a B.A.,” new research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce would seem to offer some solace for job seekers with only a high school credential. But not much, as the study shows that an increasing share of well-paying jobs have shifted to workers who hold four-year or associate degrees.

The bachelor’s degree remains the “gold standard,” said Anthony Carnevale, the center’s director and a co-author of the new study, which he said also is “very good news for community colleges.”

The center examined who is getting “good jobs,” which it defines as those paying an annual wage of least $35,000 for workers under the age of 45 and $45,000 for workers over 45. The overall median income for jobs that meet those standards is $55,000.

Four-year degree holders captured an increasing share of the nation's well-paying jobs during the last quarter century -- holding 55 percent of them in 2015 compared to 40 percent in 1991. High school graduates without at least some college under their belts now hold just 18 percent of the good jobs, down 10 percentage points during the same time period.

The study found that the number of workers without a bachelor’s degree who hold good jobs increased slightly as the economy expanded, to 30 million from 27 million in 1991. But those jobs increasingly are going to associate-degree holders or to workers with some college education.

“Good jobs in factories at the height of the manufacturing economy in the U.S. only required a high school education or less,” the study said, “but the new good jobs almost all require at least some postsecondary education and training.”

For example, the number of workers who hold good jobs with only a high school credential declined by one million since 1991, while associate-degree holders or workers with some college picked up 3.2 million new good jobs.

Over all, good jobs for workers with some college grew by 11 percent, while good jobs for those with associate degrees increased by a whopping 83 percent.

Industrial production has increased by 60 percent in the U.S. during the last quarter century, the study said, but blue-collar employment declined by 30 percent over the same period. And manufacturing accounted for 2.5 million of the three million good jobs the economy lost since 1991.

Carnevale said the center was surprised by the growth of good jobs in what the study calls “skilled service fields,” which include health care, finance and IT. Those jobs now account for 14 million of the 30 million well-paying jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree.

The increase in skilled service jobs helped soften the blow of America’s decline in manufacturing employment.

“Going in, we all thought we were going to find disaster,” said Carnevale.Figure 4: Between 1991 and 2015, the share of good jobs going to workers without a B.A. fell from 60 percent to 45 percent. Bar chart shows change in share of good jobs by level of education achieved.

Equity Gaps and Gainful Employment

Even so, the study includes plenty of troubling findings, particularly around equity gaps.

The study confirms some of the narrative around white men who are frustrated about a decline in well-paying blue collar jobs -- a demographic that helped fuel Donald Trump’s victory in last year’s presidential election.

“They took a big hit,” said Carnevale.

However, while there may be fewer good jobs for white men without college degrees, the group has a big head start on the rest of the country.

Men account for roughly two-thirds of the well-paying jobs held by workers without a bachelor’s degree, a proportion that has changed little since 1991. And white workers (men and women) hold roughly two-thirds of the good jobs going to workers without a four-year degree, although their share has declined somewhat due mostly to the rapidly growing work force of Latinos. The percentage of good jobs held by black workers has been largely flat.

White men “still get their disproportionate share” of sub-baccalaureate good jobs, said Carnevale. “Women don’t get good jobs until they get bachelor’s degrees.”

The news isn't all good for community colleges and their graduates. While the study shows that an earning an associate degree is a much better bet than trying find a good job without going to college, the odds aren’t comforting, particularly if students don’t have access to good information and counseling about job options.

Over all, a worker with a bachelor’s degree has a 75 percent chance of holding a good job, Carnevale said. An associate-degree holder has a 40 percent chance. In addition, four-year-degree holders can worry less about what they major in, he said. Associate-degree holders face more restrictive choices, as most of the good jobs are in the growing skilled service fields.

“Field of study gets more and more important as you go more sub-baccalaureate,” he said. “Those jobs are there. But a 40 percent success rate is not acceptable.”

As result, he said, the study provides evidence for the value of collecting and publicly releasing good data about the employment rates and ability to pay off student loans of college graduates, particularly workers who hold less than a four-year degree.

"Less education requires more counseling," said Carnevale. "This is an argument for very strong gainful employment-style transparency. And regulation in some cases."

The Obama administration’s gainful-employment rule, which applies to nondegree programs at nonprofit institutions and to all offerings from colleges in the for-profit sector, measures the ability of graduates to pay down their student loans. Sanctions would kick in for programs that don’t meet the rule’s thresholds.

For-profits and some nonprofit colleges, particularly groups representing historically black colleges and universities, opposed that regulation, as well as one aimed at enhancing protections for borrowers and taxpayers, the so-called borrower-defense rule.

The Trump administration’s Education Department last month hit pause on both rules and has begun the likely long process of starting over again to try to rewrite them.Figure 12. Associate’s degree holders have secured good jobs in both blue-collar and skilled-service industries. Bar chart shows change in health-care services; financial and consulting/business services; leisure and hospitality, and personal services; wholesale and retail trade; construction; transportation and utilities; manufacturing; government services; education services; and natural resources. Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (March), 1992-2016.

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