Here’s How Bad the Job Market Is If You Don’t Go to College

Only 1 percent of post–Great Recession positions have gone to Americans without some higher education.
A job seeker fills out an application during a job fair in Santa Clara, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Jul 5, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

For years, President Barack Obama and education policy officials have warned that workers will need at least some postsecondary education to succeed in the new economy.

Now there’s evidence backing them up. A new Georgetown University report shows that out of the 11.6 million jobs created after the Great Recession, 11.5 million went to applicants who had at least some college education on their résumés.

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Of these jobs, the bulk—8.4 million—went to Americans with bachelor’s degrees or higher—proof that earning a college diploma is worth the time and expense. People with some college education or an associate’s degree gained more than 3 million jobs, while post–Great Recession employment of workers with high school diplomas or less only grew by 80,000 jobs.

Further, the report, which was produced by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, revealed that for the first time in history, employees with higher education make up a majority of the workforce. That’s a sharp uptick in a trend that began in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s, decades in which a worker could find a well-paying job with just a high school diploma.

(Chart: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce)

“It’s not surprising, in general,” said Anthony Carnevale, CEW’s director and the lead author of the report, Divided Recovery: College Have and Have-Nots. Since the 1981 recession, he said, the low-education, high-wage jobs in manufacturing have vanished, gradually replaced by jobs that require more education or technical training.

“We ended up with a college economy,” Carnevale told TakePart. “In some ways, we’re just crossing another line. The trend is not surprising. But what seems to have happened is that trend accelerated” during the global economic downturn of 2007–2008.

(Chart: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce)

That turn of events, Carnevale said, results in another grim prognosis for black, Latino, and low-income Americans—populations that are, statistically, least likely to get a postsecondary education. That’s why Carnevale and others, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, want a “new deal” for the poor and working class: billions of federal dollars for college and job training for present and future workers at risk of being left behind.

According to the report, the ongoing economic recovery has brought back jobs but not the same kinds as the ones that went away. Blue-collar, low-tech manufacturing and clerical jobs, which don’t require a high degree of education, vanished; they were replaced by white-collar professional and managerial jobs.

Manufacturing jobs, which employed about half the American workforce in 1947, make up about 19 percent of the jobs in 2016, according to the report. Employees with a bachelor’s degree or higher are 36 percent of the workforce—an all-time high—while 34 percent of the workforce is high school educated. “Workers with at least some postsecondary education have also captured the vast majority of the good jobs—jobs that pay more than $53,000 per year for full-time, full-year workers and come with benefits, such as employer provided health insurance and a retirement plan,” wrote the report’s authors.

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For young people who want a middle-class lifestyle, “the easy answer is everyone should go to Georgetown—if you can afford it, sure,” Carnevale quipped. “The problem is we can’t afford college for everyone. The government is getting out of the business of going to college. We’re meeting less and less of the need” even as college costs spiral to record highs, he said.

There is help on the horizon, such as Obama’s plans for tuition-free community college, a policy recommendation included in the draft of the Democratic National Committee party platform released on Friday. Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, her rival for the Democratic nomination, have released competing plans to eliminate student debt at four-year colleges and universities. But experts say these proposals may have the unintended consequences of benefiting affluent white students who don’t really need the help while nudging working-class and minority kids to vocational-training programs at two-year schools.

In May, Sam Clovis, the national cochair and policy director of Donald Trump’s campaign, told Insider Higher Education that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee rejects the idea of free community college or debt-free public higher education.

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Studies show the more education a young person gets, the higher his or her paychecks are likely to be, putting a premium on a bachelor’s degree. Yet the dropout rate for minority kids in community colleges is far above that for four-year schools, and community college students often struggle to make the transition from a two-year to a four-year school.

“This is a tricky equation,” Carnevale said. “The worry I have and what I’m afraid is going to happen is the people in America with money will get solid, specific education”—bachelor’s degrees in engineering or computer science, for example—“and working-class and minority people will get job training.”

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“College has got to get a lot more efficient,” Carnevale said. That means giving students more information about graduation and job-placement rates, he said, and avoiding wasting their time and money in courses they won’t need to get a job.

“They’ve got to be a lot more equitable” for poor and minority students, he added. “And they won’t be more equitable until they’re more efficient, because efficiency frees up the money to be equitable.”