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Bachelor's degree value rises becomes new high school diploma

Two new studies from the Pew Research Center in the US and Council of Ontario Universities in Canada determined that a bachelor's degree is the minimum and best education necessary for career sucess
Two new studies from the Pew Research Center in the US and Council of Ontario Universities in Canada determined that a bachelor's degree is the minimum and best education necessary for career sucess
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Two recent surveys one released in the United States the other in Canada indicate that even with recent high unemployment rates for college and university graduates, getting a college degree is definitely worth the cost. In the U.S. the Pew Research Center released a new survey on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 entitled "The Rising Cost of Not Going to College," while in Canada the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) released a report on Monday, Feb. 24, entitled "University Works." Both the survey and report concluded despite the economic difficulties a bachelor's degree is the minimum education necessary to succeed, and that two-year college or technical and trade degree graduates are not faring much better than high school graduates.

The Pew survey called bachelor's degree graduates or four-year education, college or college graduates, while in Canada and the University Works's report, college always refers to technical and trade education similar to the U.S's two-year college degree, while a bachelor's degree education is referred to as a university degree. The Pew survey looks at the Millennial generation age 25-to 32, while the University Works looks at a smaller segment those aged between 25-29.

The Pew survey examined the pay gap between a college and high school education for the "so-called Millennial generation" that are born after 1980 and between 25 and 32 years-old, but also attitudes towards their education and jobs with an attempt to put the Millenials position in the context as to the employment and educational position of previous generations starting with the Silent generation. As the Pew Research Center explained; "This survey captured the views of today's adults toward their education, their job and their experiences in the workforce."

The Pew survey also compared how graduates of two-year college degrees fare in relation to bachelor's degree college graduates and those with only high school diplomas, with them usually facing a similar situation to those with a high school education, only doing slightly better, but no way close to those who have earned a bachelor's degree or more.

According to the Pew survey although the gap is widening specifically for Millenials, no matter the generation those with a college education are "doing better" than those with only a high school diploma. However, the gap between the wages of a college and high school graduate has never been as high as it is for Millenials.

Those with college degrees also out earn their peers with only high school degrees at an average of $17,500 more of wages each year. Those with college degrees had an average income of $45,500 each year, while those with only a high school diploma only earn an average of $28,000, with two-year college degree graduates doing almost the same at $30,000 a year. However, the "median household wealth" for Millenials in 2011 was $26,059, less that it was in previous generals.

Those who are college educated view "their job is a career or a steppingstone to a career (86% vs. 57%)." In this case those with a two-year college degree's train of thought are closer than those with a college degree with 73 percent think their job is a "career/career track job." Those with a high school educated on less are "three times as likely as college graduates to say their work is 'just a job to get [them] by' (42% vs. 14%)."

In regards to graduates' opinion on their education preparing them for their future employment, college graduates with bachelor's degrees and those with two-year college degrees have similar opinions feeling their education prepared them well, while those with high school diplomas are at the opposite end of the spectrum on the matter. College graduates find "their education has been "very useful" in preparing them for work and a career (46% vs. 31%)," with two-year college graduates aligning with college graduates at 43 percent. As for "hav[ing] the necessary education and training to advance in their careers" it is 63 percent for college graduates vs. 41 percent for those with high school diplomas and 55 percent two-year college graduates think that way.

Pew also found the college educated find that their degree was worth it, regardless of whether they have loans to repay or not. An overwhelming 72 percent "say college has already paid off," and additional 17 percent believe "will pay off in the future." The numbers are even higher among those who took loans to pay for their education, with 86 percent "say[ing] their degrees have been worth it or expect that they will be in the future."

Coinciding, is that fact that college graduates are more satisfied with their employment than those with only a high school diploma high school by 53 percent to only 37 percent, however this is one of the very few results where two-year college graduates are not in-between, but rather are the most dissatisfied with their jobs. Overwhelmingly college graduates feel that the jobs they have are "career track" 86 percent than 57 percent with just a high school education and 73 for two-year college graduates.

The Pew survey also determined that Millenials are the most educated generation with 34 percent having at the least a bachelor's degree, however, the great recession has stalled their earning potential, and they have not earned a significant amount more than those in previous generations. In contrast however, high school graduates are earning far less than previous generations, according to Pew "This decline has been large enough to nearly offset the gains of college graduates."

None of this suggests or debunks the myths that college graduates are having an easy time gaining employment during the economic collapse and subsequent recession. Pew Research Center found that "College-educated Millennials also are more likely to be employed full time than their less-educated counterparts (89% vs. 82%) and significantly less likely to be unemployed (3.8% vs. 12.2%)." Pew states that Millenials "are more likely to be unemployed and have to search longer for a job than earlier generations of young adults." The unemployment rate for college graduates sits at 3.8 percent, and it takes them on average 27 weeks to gain employment.

In comparison, the unemployment rate for graduates of two-year degrees is 8.1 percent in between that of college and high school graduates. Those with only a high school education have an unemployment rate that is over 8 percent more than those with college degrees and sits at 12.2 percent, with taking a month more than college graduates to obtain employment or 31 weeks. Pew found that "not only fare worse than the college-educated, but they are doing worse than earlier generations at a similar age."

The poverty gap is also much wider for Millenials as well, with only 5.8 percent of college graduates living in poverty versus 22 percent of high school graduates, and two-year college graduates in the middle, but closer to the position of high school graduates with 14.7 percent living in poverty.

President Barack Obama recently put back in the spotlight the debate between a the worthiness of college education in the humanities, liberal arts and social science university degree versus a professional degree, or a degree in business or STEM, Science, technology, engineering and math or technical job training programs he has been selling as part of his economic opportunity program to bring low income earners up to the middle class through job creation, higher minimum wages and job training programs.

The Pew Research Center survey indicates that although President Obama may have a point regarding humanities and social science majors. A majority of science or engineering graduates "say that their current job is 'very closely'" to their field of study at 60 percent as opposed to graduates with majors in the liberal arts, social science, education and business at only 43 percent. Science and engineering students are also more satisfied in the long run with their major with only 24 percent wishing they had chosen another major as Pew explains "compared with 33% of those whose degree is in social science, liberal arts or education. Some 28% of business majors say they would have been better prepared for the job they wanted if they had chosen a different major."

The Pew survey also proves President Obama right that the job experience accompanied by academic study is one of the best ways to prepare for the workplace. Pew asked Millennials what they would have done differently at college to prepare for the career by either "gaining more work experience, studying harder or beginning their job search earlier." The majority at 50 percent listed gaining more work experience as their greatest regret, 38 percent listed "not studying harder," 30 percent said not "looking for a job sooner," while 29 percent regretted their major. Millenials in general at 31 percent regretted elements of their college experience that they wish would have done better to prepare for a job more than any generation.

Still in comparison to just technical job training program, the survey indicates President Obama is wrong, even a degree in the humanities has a greater value than the just a high school degree and a job training program. Many technical trade programs are taught as part of two-year college degrees, from the Pew survey's results the situation of those graduates are in-between those with college degrees and high school graduates, in terms of wages and job satisfaction their opinion s and positions are close to high school graduates.

The Pew Research Center concluded in their survey; "Similarly, in terms of hours worked, likelihood of full-time employment and overall wealth, today's young college graduates fare worse than their peers in earlier generations. But again, Millennials without a college degree fare worse, not only in comparison to their college-educated contemporaries but also when compared with similarly educated young adults in earlier generations."

The executive vice president of special projects at the Pew Research Center Paul Taylor spoke to US News and World Report about the survey's findings, stating; "There's a reason we call this report 'The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.'" The US News' feature argued that college graduates "underemployed, working jobs that are well below their qualifications."

According to Taylor the real conclusion of the survey was that "The driver of that widening is not so much that today's college graduates are doing better than yesterday's college graduates are doing; it's that today's high school-only graduates are doing worse than yesterday's high school-only graduates. The real story is the collapse in economic opportunity for people who do not continue their education beyond high school."

While Rick Fry, the co-author of the report and researcher at Pew explained the reasons behind the widening gap between college graduates and those with only a high school diploma; "Two things have happened to explain this gap. College educated workers have gotten paid more and … the value of a high school degree has really been hammered."

Taylor concluded that despite the recession, college graduates still have an easier time gaining employment than those with only a high school diploma, saying; "Some of the story that's familiar about the difficulty, even of college graduates in today's economy, is also told here. But that doesn't mean they aren't doing better vis-à-vis high school graduates."

The findings in Canada have similar results than the U.S. proving that university graduates are faring much better than those with only a high school education or some post-secondary education. The Council of Ontario Universities (COU) report "University Works" looked at a smaller segment of the population not by generation, but by demographic group, those between 25 and 29 years-old. Unlike the U.S. a university degree refers to a bachelor's degree and instead a college degree is from a post-secondary technical program, and examines the three-way difference between a university, college and high school education.

The University Works report was meant to debunk to myths that university graduates are unemployed more and that post-secondary technical program graduates have more jobs in demand. Max Blouw, the Council of Ontario Universities COU Chair and President of Wilfrid Laurier University stated; "This report uses empirical data to debunk anecdotal reports about unemployed and under-employed university students. The statistics show very clearly that a university education leads to success in the labour market." The report concludes that both those assumptions are false and the situation is in fact the opposite; university graduates are more employed and in their field of study, while demand for trade graduates is at a four-year low.

Cecilia Brain, "Economist and Senior Policy Analyst at COU" writing about the report she authored in the Globe and Mail explains; "University Works - my analysis of data from Statistics Canada and Ontario's Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities shows - recent university graduates have fared significantly better than graduates from other postsecondary institutions. University graduates in Ontario have the best employment rates, make the most money and are more likely to get a job in their field than are students with other credentials."

The report determined the employment growth for college graduates is 21 percent, versus no growth for college and high school graduates. The council's report also indicates that university graduates are employed more in the field they studied than college graduates, with "73 per cent of university grads [are] working in fields 'closely or somewhat related' to their studies within six months, compared to just 66 per cent of community college grads." According to the report 90 percent of university graduates are employed within two-years and the number is 100 percent for graduates in "dentistry, pharmacy, forestry, veterinary medicine and theology."

The report also delineated the income gap between the levels of education, Brain recounts; "Six months after graduation, university graduates earn 30 per cent more than college graduates… university graduates earned 50 per cent more than college graduates, and more than twice the amount of high-school graduates." In the long run the report concludes; "Over a 40-year period, university graduates earn on average $900,000 more than a college graduate and $1.4-million more than someone who graduated from high school. This earnings premium occurs over almost every type of occupation."

Graduates in Canada of the same type of job training and trade programs that President Obama had been advocating over a bachelor's degree in the arts have seen their employment decrease since the recession. Brain determined that "employment for tradespeople decreased more rapidly than the number of tradespeople in the labour force: It is harder to find a job as a skilled tradesperson than it was four years ago." However, Brain explains; "As the United States recuperates and our dollar devalues, we can expect increased economic activity in various sectors that hire tradespeople, but it is going to take time for jobs to materialize."

Blouw also stated that the report is not meant to be biased against a college or trade education, and the report only proves that a university degree is the best education for the times. Blouw stated; "We're not trying to be polarizing; colleges and universities have different visions and more and more students go from one to another, but we want to bring evidence to the table that a university education does prepare students quite well."

Commenting on the report Blouw concluded that despite the recent economic problems a university degree is more valuable in the long run than even technical post-secondary programs. Bluow expressed; "We're pushing back against quite a number of articles and opinion pieces lately that characterize university education as less than successful preparation for the job market. You know the line about the grad asking, 'Would you like a cappuccino with that?' We're bringing evidence to the table that university education pays off quite well, to counter some of the rhetoric we're hearing about how well colleges prepare people for specific employment."

The findings of the report have similar results to the Pew survey about the value of university education, including being chosen more than any other post-high school educational option with "highest employment growth," "low unemployment rates," higher earning rates, and high correlation between field of study and current employment.

The differences however, are in the margin of the percentages in the United States, the Pew survey makes similar conclusions, but the success is not as great as in Canada, where the economic recession did not have the same lasting affect with the Canadian economy rebounding far faster. In both the U.S. and Canada, a bachelor's degree has been determined to be the minimum education for success, where the high school degree has lost any value it had for past generations with two-college and trade degrees having almost the same value in earning power.

This proves that benefits out way any of the costs of a that bachelors degree and also showing that with the decreased values of a high school diploma, and technical and trade degree, the bachelor's degree has become the minimum education for a decent job in the future. Although the cost of a college education is rising and becoming out of reach for many especially in the U.S. both the Pew survey and University Works report answers the question in North America "is a bachelor's degree worth it?" with a resounding yes.


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are academic & universities news, particularly history & library news.

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