The Data Keeps on Coming

Since you're reading this, there's an excellent chance that you're interested in higher education. It may also be the case that you're aware of two important ongoing trends taking place at the intersection of higher education and economics:

  1. The cost of higher education continues to rise, and
  2. Higher education is increasingly important to career success.

The first of these trends has led some to question the value of higher education, but as the economic recovery continues, the data seems to reinforce the second trend more and more convincingly.

For example, in the first week of May, the U.S. Department of Labor released the statistical data on employment rates as of April 2013. The big story is that the unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.5%, but analysis in The Atlantic digs in to the specifics, and points out that of workers 25 and older, college grads are the only group that has added net jobs in the past five and a half years. That is, the group that lost the fewest jobs in the downturn has accounted for all — not most, but all— the net jobs improvement in the recovery. (In this context, "net improvement" means that unemployment for college graduates is now lower than it was prior to the downturn).  Importantly, the data shows that people without any higher education are still losing jobs, even in the recovery.

Looking at the same numbers, the New York Times reports that the unemployment rate for college graduates in April was a mere 3.9 percent, compared with 7.5 percent for the work force as a whole.

Lastly, a recent article in Slate points out that the biggest advantage for people with a college education comes for those who graduate. That's not surprising in and of itself, but the degree to which this is true is counterintuitive. Sometimes called the "sheepskin effect" (a reference to college diplomas), the dollar benefit of finishing a bachelor's degree is worth much more than double the value of finishing two years of college. So while higher education can boost earnings generally, the biggest boost comes from finishing a bachelor's degree.