College still makes sense.
After World War II, the US economy promised middle-class jobs to high-school graduates and dropouts. As late as the 1970s, more than 70 percent of middle-class jobs still only required a high-school education or less, but between 1973 and 2010, the share of jobs requiring education beyond high school more than doubled, from 28 percent to more than 60 percent.
The future promises more of the same. Over the next decade, our own research shows there will be 31 million job openings that will require at least some postsecondary education or training—9 million newly created jobs and 22 million to replace retiring baby boomers.
Furthermore, since the end of the 1980–81 recession, access to college is what distinguishes the middle class from the growing number of low-income Americans. People with at least some college are staying in the middle class or moving up.
Our research shows that individuals with college degrees now make 84 percent more over their lifetimes than those with only a high-school diploma, up from 40 percent in 1983. Two-thirds of the high-school-level jobs that provided anything close to family-sustaining earnings (currently $35,000 per year) have disappeared, and those that are left are mostly filled by men in declining industries.
And a college diploma no longer forms a strict demarcation between a blue-collar and white-collar job. More and more blue-collar jobs demand postsecondary education and training—up to 43 percent in 2010 from 22 percent in the 80s. Clearly, not every young person requires a bachelor’s degree; many future job opportunities will require credentials that have an occupational focus, like certificates and associate’s degrees.
Sure, college is expensive—stories of students racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt are common. Federal student-loan default rates jumped from 7 percent in 2008 to 8.8 percent in 2009, so it’s clear that not everyone is handling that debt responsibly.
But consider this: the bachelor’s degree a graduate gets in 2015 will, on average, be worth a million dollars more in lifetime earnings than a newly minted high-school diploma. A two-year associate’s degree is worth $400,000 more than a high-school degree in lifetime earnings. Compare the cost and the benefit: even the most expensive colleges cost only a fraction of their ultimate payoff. In fact, one could argue that the only choice more expensive than going to college is not going to college.
Another thing to consider: the shift toward postsecondary education and training as the arbiter of middle-class earnings is tied to an economic trend that has only picked up steam during the recent recession. Technological advances, combined with relentless global competition and pressures for cost-cutting, have accelerated the automation of routine and programmable tasks in every occupation. Now, the jobs that survive are those that involve more sophisticated, nonroutine tasks, which demand deeper knowledge plus problem-solving and interpersonal skills.
Good jobs that require only a high-school education are leaving and will not be coming back. As long as we remain preoccupied with the economic wreckage in our rearview mirror, we will be hurtling unprepared into our economic future.