Is College Worth It? New Pew Study Finds Higher Education Protects Workers

While young workers with a four-year degree suffered during the recession and slow recovery, they fared far better than their less educated counterparts

By Kevin Walker
Posted January 12, 2013 09:00 AM

Pew Study Highlights Value of Four-Year Degree
Pew Study Highlights Value of Four-Year Degree

With the United States still pulling itself slowly out of the Great Recession, many question whether getting a college degree can really give a person better job security.

In another words, can a college degree help you better weather bad economic times?

Despite suggestions from some commentators and media outlets that those with a bachelor’s degree suffered as much as others in the job market during the recession, a new study released this week by the Pew Economic Mobility Project found that is not the case.

The report concludes that a four-year college degree helped young workers better handle the economic downturn.

“Higher education is one of the key factors driving upward mobility in the United States,” said Diana Elliott, research manager of the Pew Economic Mobility Project, in a press release accompanying the report.

“Even under the pressures of the most recent economic downturn, a four-year college degree provided protection in the labor market for recent college graduates.”

Study Finds Education Can Help You Keep a Job

The Pew Economic Mobility Project studies the effects of education on a person’s upward mobility in society or, at the very least, education’s ability to prevent downward mobility.

According to the Pew Center Web site, the new study – “How Much Protection Does a College Degree Afford? The Impact of the Recession on Recent College Graduates” – sifted through employment data on job seekers between the ages of 21 to 24 in the years 2003-2011.

Among the findings:

· Those between 21 and 24 who had a four-year degree experienced declines in employment and wages during the Great Recession, but the decline was “considerably more severe for those with only high school or associate degrees.”

· High employment among college graduates was not driven by people seeking lesser jobs or lower wages.

· Those with four-year college degrees found work with more success than less-educated 21 to 24-year-olds.

· Despite these numbers, the share of 21 to 24-year-olds seeking higher education did not increase that much during the recession.

Those Without College Degrees Experienced Steep Declines In Employment

According to the Pew study, those whose top academic achievement was a high school diploma experienced a 16% drop in employment during the years of the study. Those with an associate’s degree experienced an 11% drop.

In comparison, those with a bachelor’s degree experienced a 7% drop in employment during the recession.

Why were those with a four-year degree spared deeper employment losses? The Pew study found that the job market stabilized quickly for those with a bachelor’s degree. By mid-2009, according to the study, the decline in employment for those with a four-year degree had bottomed out.

Meanwhile, declines in employment for those with high school diplomas continued to decline significantly.

Surprisingly, the study found there was actually an uptick of jobs for those hold a bachelor’s degree just before the recession started in December 2007 and “an equally slight decline after the recession.”

“This is not the substantial downward drift of the sort that some commentators feared,” the report stated.

Conclusions of the Pew Study

Another interesting finding of the study is that the number of 21 to 24-year-olds going back to school did not significantly increase. The number of people seeking two-year degrees actually fell off.

The study noted this was good news for those who already had a four-year degree, as they “were not facing growing competition from other workers and could, therefore, more easily maintain their advantageous position in the queue of workers.”

Still, the report found that those who did get a four-year degree made the transition to the labor market successfully at a rate that “remained roughly unchanged despite the recession.

“By contrast, the corresponding proportions for high school graduates and associate degree-holders declined substantially and significantly with the recession.”

The report concludes that the 7% drop in employment for those 21 to 24-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree show that college graduates “suffered under the recession.”

“These effects are, however, quite small when compared with those experienced by high school and two-year college graduates,” the report stated. “The data here are at odds with media accounts suggesting that young college graduates are finding it much more difficult to get jobs, are accepting much less desirable positions and lower wages when they can get jobs, and are increasingly ‘camping out’ at home and in schools when they cannot get jobs.

“When the comparative lens is applied, it is evident that recent college graduates were well-protected against the worst effects of the recession.”

*Join the discussion on Twitter with hashtag #IsCollegeWorthIt

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