The Pew Research Center has just released a terrific new report entitled “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College”. If you care about understanding the reality of today’s economy for young adults this is a must read report.
Using data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) it makes clear that in terms of both employment and wages 25-32 year olds with a four year degree are doing substantially better than their peers with some college or a two year degree as well as those with only a high school degree. So much for the increasing conventional wisdom that many young adults would be better off with an occupational certificate or community college degree rather than a four year degree!
The report presents a comparison of 25-32 in 2013 by education attainment. As well as comparing today’s 25-32 years olds to those in previous generations. They do that by looking at CPS data for 25-32 year olds in 1969, 1979, 1986 and 1995. Each is four years into a national recovery from the trough of a recession. And with all earnings in 2012 dollars to correct for inflation.
Lets review first the headlines for today’s 25-32 year olds by education attainment.
- Bachelors or more: 3.8%
- Two year degree or some college: 8.1%
- High school degree: 12.2%
Median Annual Earnings for full time workers
- Bachelors or more: $45,500
- Two year degree or some college: $30,000
- High school degree: $28,000
No matter what you hear the reality is Millennials with a four year degree are doing substantially better than their peers without a four year degree. End of story!
(The good news is that the Millennials seem to be ignoring the conventional wisdom. They have a much higher four year degree attainment rate than previous generations. 34 percent compared to around 25 percent for Generation X and the Boomers and only 13% for the generation before the Boomers which Pew calls the Silents.)
In many ways what is more interesting in the report is the comparison of generations data. Pew summarizes those findings this way:
On the one hand, it is clear that young, college-educated workers are having more difficulty landing work compared with earlier cohorts of young adults. They are more likely to be unemployed, and it takes them longer, on average, to find a job. On the other hand, once they’re employed, their earnings are higher than those received by earlier cohorts of young, college-educated adults. For less-educated young workers, there is no upside: They are more likely to be unemployed and they are spending more time searching for a job compared with less-educated young workers who came before them. And their earnings are significantly below those received by less-educated young workers in earlier generations (with the exception of high school-educated Gen Xers).
The unemployment rate for today’s 25-32 year olds is substantially higher than those of the same age in 1969, 1979, 1986 and 1995 at all education levels. The unemployment rate ranged in those years from 1.4-2.8 percent for those with four year degrees compared to 3.8 percent today; from 3.2-5.0 percent for those with two year degrees or some college compared to 8.1 percent today; and from 4.3-9.0 percent for those with high school degrees compared to 12.2 percent today.
But the median annual earnings story is different. Here those with a four year degree today are doing better than their peers of previous generations. Certainly not the story we are told over and over again. Today’s 25-32 year olds with a four year degree working full time have median annual earnings of $45,500. The range for previous generations at the same phase of the cycle and in inflation adjusted dollars is $38,833-44,770. The gap in median annual earnings for young full time workers has grown consistently for those with a four year degree compared to those with a high schools degree from $7,500 in 1965 to $17,500 today. (The proportion of those working who worked full time is virtually the same for the generations at around 90 percent.)
This is not true for those who have a two year degree or some college and those with only a high school degree. In both cases those 25-32 year olds working full time have lower inflation adjusted median annual earnings than the previous four generations. For those with two year degrees or some college the gap is between roughly $2,000 and 6,500. For those with only a high degree the gap ranges from roughly even for Generation X (in 1995) to $4,000 in 1979 (what Pew calls Early Boomers).
What is most surprising to me is how poorly 25-32 year olds with some college or a two year degree are doing compared to their peers both with only a high school degree and those with a four year degree. The earning premium for those with some college or a two year degree compared to those with a high school degree has collapsed. From about $4,000 in 1979, 1986, and 1995 to $2,000 today. And the gap between those with a four year degree and those with a two year degree or some college has grown steadily from $5,000 in 1969 to $15,500 today. (From 1995 to 2013 its grown from $11,000 to $15,500.)