New studies weigh college value, cost

The unemployment rate for all four-year graduates is 4.5 percent

Two new studies offer emphatic answers to much-discussed questions about higher education: Yes, a college degree is worth it, but yes, it’s the middle-class that’s getting particularly squeezed with student debt in the pursuit of one.

Both studies make persuasive cases, though each could be misunderstood without important context.

The first, released last week by the Lumina Foundation and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, seems to thoroughly demolish the idea that the Great Recession diminished the value of a college degree.

Yes, recent college grads have struggled more than usual to find jobs matching their training. But overall, even as unemployment was rising past 10 percent, the authors found the economy actually added 200,000 jobs for workers with a bachelor’s degree. Since the recovery began, it’s created 2 million more.

Just as there wasn’t really a recession, at least in terms of job creation, for those with college degrees, there hasn’t been a recovery for those without them. Nearly 6 million high-school-only jobs have been lost since the downturn began, and they are still declining even in the recovery.

That recovery may well never come if you have no college at all (though people with some college have done reasonably well of late).

“This is the clearest information that we have seen to date about the advantage of having college-level skills in the employment market,” said Lumina’s president and CEO Jamie Merisotis. “Since the recovery started two years ago we’ve seen a real acceleration. The gap between those with a college credential and those without one is growing.”

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The unemployment rate for all four-year graduates is 4.5 percent. For recent graduates, it’s 6.8 percent. For recent graduates trying to work with only a high school diploma, it’s nearly 24 percent.

In construction and manufacturing, which accounted for two-thirds of all Great Recession job losses, virtually all of the hiring during the recovery has targeted people with bachelor’s or at least associate’s degrees.

Despite the hit those industries took, there are now about as many jobs in them as before the recession overall. But there are 15 percent fewer jobs for those with only high school in manufacturing, and 25 percent fewer in construction.

Overall, the number of jobs for people with at least some college is growing at a healthy 4 percent annually. But the growth rate for high school-only jobs is zero and those jobs remain 10 percent below their pre-recession levels.