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The Employment Value of Higher Education

Sarah Bohn July 22, 2016

As of June, California’s unemployment rate was 5.4%, the lowest that it’s been in nearly nine years. Of course, in that nine years, California’s workers have seen drastic swings in employment opportunity. Higher education is a key determinant of how people fare when the economy slows.

Californians with education credentials beyond high school, from an associate’s degree up to a doctoral degree, have lower than average unemployment rates in general – and had smaller spikes in unemployment during the recession. Even workers with just some schooling beyond high school, but less than an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, fare systematically better than those without any college experience. The following figure shows how unemployment varied according to education levels since 2008. These estimates rely on detailed Census Bureau survey data, which is produced with a significant lag, so the most recent information we have pertains to calendar year 2014.

Although employment across all categories has recovered to its pre-recession levels (or nearly so), Californians with more education have had a smoother course. Unemployment among workers without a post-secondary degree jumped 5–7 points during the recession, but increased by only 2 points for those with advanced degrees.

In good times and in bad, the likelihood of employment is higher the more education Californians have. This—along with generally higher wages—contributes to the substantial gain in lifetime earnings for those who obtain post-secondary credentials. Despite widespread discussion about the value of a college education, the lifetime economic opportunity afforded by post-secondary credentials is not up for debate.

Chart source: Author calculations from American Community Survey data, age 25 and older.

Learn more

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