Employment prospects and salary levels improve dramatically as education levels increase. These combine to result in big gains in lifetime earnings at each progressive level of the education ladder. College grads (and especially advanced degree holders) have much higher earnings and suffer far less unemployment than do high-school graduates (not to speak of those without a high school degree. Lifetime earnings of high school graduates average about $973,000 in 2009 dollars, compared with about $1.7 million for those with associate degrees, $2.3 million for those with bachelors and $3.6 million for those with professional degrees.
Moreover, these differences are getting wider. Pay for college graduates has risen by 15.7% (adjusted for inflation) over the past 32 years, compared with an average decline of 25.7% for those workers without college degrees. And this does not even begin to account for non-economic advantages held by college graduates, including lower divorce rates, fewer single-parent families and longer life expectancies.
Higher-Education: High-Skill Holy Grail?
At first glance, given the employment, income and other disparities, it may appear that any student, with a real choice in the matter, should get at least a baccalaureate degree, and ideally, a Masters, PhD or Professional degree. In addition to the benefits discussed above, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS’) Employment Projections—2010-20 project projects that occupations in which a master’s degree or higher is typically required, are expected to grow at the fastest rate of any other education category (21.7% for masters and 19.9% for doctoral or professional degrees—especially in healthcare-related professions).
On the other hand, however, the report projects that only 3 of the 30 occupations that BLS expects to produce the largest number of job openings by 2020 are expected to require a bachelor’s degree or higher—teachers, college professors and accountants. But even these careers will face big challenges. Teacher and college hiring are both suffering from big government funding cuts that threaten to greatly reduce both the pay and the fabled job security these jobs offer. Accountants, meanwhile, are subject to the same type of offshoring pressures as a number of other high-skill jobs. And then there is the increasingly critical issue of the costs (both explicit and implicit opportunity costs) of attending college, the burden of college debt and the increasingly asked question as to whether the “return” from a college education is worth the “investment.”
This incredibly complex question entails much more than an ROI analysis. It is also highly situational, depending on factors including the student’s grades, motivation, objectives and family situation. Even if you focus exclusively on employability and salary, the answer varies greatly by factors including:
- Which school on is talking about, Harvard or the proverbial Podunk State?
- Cost of tuition—is it a private or public school, what type of financial aid is available, can you ameliorate expenses such as by living at home or working part time?
- The breadth and depth of one’s personal network, which is still one of the most important determinants as to whether and what type of job one can get.
Most important, however, is the field of study. As shown in the BLS Employment Projections report, philosophy, anthropology, zoology, art history and humanities graduates are the least likely to find jobs. Those majoring in engineering, math, biology, computer science, accounting and economics are not only far more likely to find jobs, they are also more likely to get jobs in their field and earn higher salaries.
A more dated BLS report looked specifically at starting salaries for a range of liberal arts majors. Overall, liberal arts graduates of highly selective Ivy League and other Tier One schools often have reasonable success in finding jobs, almost regardless of their major—even among hedge funds and management consulting firms. Often, 80% or more of such graduates either go on to graduate school or get jobs at, or soon after, graduation.
The same is sometimes true of particularly attractive graduates of less selective programs. Morgan Stanley, for example, may obtain 25-30% of its undergraduate hires out of liberal arts programs, and then provide them with more functional training through online courses and training programs.
Community Colleges: The Other Higher Education
Higher education does not necessarily mean a four-year degree. Community colleges, often viewed as something of a poor stepchild of the university, play critical roles in educating many first-generation students who would not otherwise have a chance for a college education and play a key role as a low-cost “feeder system” for four-year schools. Just as importantly, they are often far-more attuned to the skills requirements of local businesses. Some of these schools design classes, certification programs and even associate degree programs in conjunction with, and serve as training arms for these businesses.
The single fastest projected employment growth (in terms of numbers) is for Registered Nurses. In fact, these jobs, plus those of 5 of the 30 fastest growing (in percentage terms) jobs in the country—all of which are also in healthcare—all require Associate Degrees (rather than Bachelors or advanced degrees) as their minimum educational requirements. Community colleges are also instrumental in preparing the next lower skill (and often wage) workers—those that must take certification courses and pass exams as either a formal or informal qualification for jobs.
Even many above-average paying jobs that don’t require a formal post-secondary degree of certificate often require a less formal education program, such as an apprenticeship program. In fact, occupations that require apprenticeships are expected to be the fastest growing of all jobs that require some form of on-the-job training. Some of these—especially those that require demonstrated technical competence—are among the highest paid and most difficult to fill positions in today’s job market. They are likely to occupy the same position in tomorrow’s job market..