Going backwards on college attainment

“Too much emphasis on a four-year degree, says Michigan Governor” was the headline of a recent Michigan Radio article. How distressing!

The reality is that Michiganders are suffering because not enough of us have four year degrees. Michigan is now 36th in per capita income, down from 18th in 2000, largely because we are 34th in the proportion of adults with a four year degree. Around 25% of Michiganders have a four year degree compare to 28% nationally and 39% in high income Massachusetts. Education attainment is now the single best predictor of personal income for both individuals and states.

The data are clear and overwhelming. As the chart below from the Bureau of Labor Statistics makes clear education pays. The more education the lower the unemployment rate and the higher the wages. Why is there lower unemployment and higher wages the higher a person’s education attainment? Supply and demand. Employers increasingly want and need workers with four year degrees or more. And the supply is too small to meet those demands. And all the evidence is that this supply/demand mismatch which has been growing over time will grow even larger in the future.

The Michigan Radio article says: “Governor Rick Snyder said Michigan and the rest of the country lost sight of the value of vocational training as young people were encouraged to get four-year college degrees. … “How dumb was that? I mean, if you stop and think about it. So we did supply on one chart, demand on another chart, and when everyone knows we need to have one chart where we bring supply and demand together, and create talent, and connect it,” said Snyder.”

Are there technical fields in which there is more demand than supply? Of course. Although many of those occupations, particularly in the manufacturing and construction skilled trades, saw huge layoffs during the Great Recession. So because demand is up today it may not be over the long haul. Is a community college degree or occupational certificate/apprenticeship worth getting? Of course.

But look at the data above for the two categories that best represent technical occupations, the unemployment rate for those with some college and no degree is 8.7%, for those with a community college degree 6.8%.  Both far above that of those with a four year degree or more.  Ranging from 4.9% and below.  Same story for median weekly wage: some college/no degree at $718 and for those with a two year degree $768. Far below those with a four year degree or more. Ranging from $1,053 and up.

The demand for jobs––apparently what the Governor thinks should be the driver of the education system––is overwhelmingly for those with a four year degree of more. The data from Georgetown University that we explored in detail in a recent post is worth repeating:

  • Those with a high school degree or less lost 5.6 million jobs in the Great Recession and lost another 230,000 in the recovery (from January 2010 to February 2012). For the entire period (December 2007 to February 2012) those with a high school diploma or less have seen employment decline 10%.
  • Those with some college or an associates degree lost 1.75 million jobs in the Great Recession and gained 1.6 million in the recovery. For the entire period those with some college or an associates degree have seen employment hold steady.
  • Those with a bachelors degree or more gained 187,000 jobs in the Great Recession and gained 2.0 million jobs in the recovery. For the entire period those with a bachelors degree or have seen employment gains of 5%.

How you can look at the BLS and Georgetown University data and say we have placed too much emphasis on a four-year degree is incomprehensible.

If we care about preparing our children for the economy of the future and for middle class and above jobs and careers we need to emphasize far more––certainly not less––the importance of obtaining a four year degree. Should we do that in a way that also makes clear that a community college degree or occupational certificate is also a path to decent paying jobs and career? Of course. But doing so in a way that makes clear that the most reliable path to both having a job and having a good paying job is a four year degree or more.

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