It's no surprise that people with college educations generally make more money than people who only have high school diplomas. But a new study of education demand released Tuesday suggests that during the next decade, the overwhelming majority of jobs will require some college training and that a high school diploma alone will be a ticket to a life of poverty.
The study, conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, found that in 1970, 26% of the middle class had post-secondary education such as some college, as associate degree or a bachelor's degree, while in 2007 61% of middle class workers had post-secondary training. The middle class was defined as those who earn a salary in the middle four rungs of the national income scale.
In one of the study's grimmest findings, it noted that workers with only a high school diploma constituted 60% of the middle class in 1970, but make up only 45% of the middle class in 2007. At the same time, these workers made up 22% of the three lowest income rungs in 1970, but that number increased to 35% in 2007. In the future, workers with only a high school diploma will be confined to three low-wage job categories: sales and office support, food and personal services, and manufacturing and construction.
"One of the big findings for me was that we're moving from our grandfather's high school based economy, where a high school diploma was a fair guarantee of economic opportunity," says Jeff Strohl, director of research at the center and one of the authors of the study. "Today post-secondary education is the real key to attaining economic opportunity in the United States."
The clearest indicator of that stratification: Estimated lifetime earnings are $1.7 million for a high school graduate, $3.3 million for a college graduate, and $4 million for a Ph.D.
The report estimates the economy will create about 47 million jobs by 2018, including 14 million new jobs and 33 million jobs replacing workers who leave or retire. About 33% of those jobs will require a bachelor's degree and another 30 percent will require an associate degree or at least some college training. Only a third will be available to people with a high school diploma or less.
Colleges Projected to Come Up Short of Demand
Another interesting finding is that job patterns have changed dramatically. Instead of going to work in one industry and slowly advancing over a career, most people will now work in specific occupations such as an accountant or engineer and switch jobs frequently. On average, American workers change jobs 10 times in their lifetimes.
"The thing you carry with you is your occupation," Strohl said. "I've been an analyst in the research and development field, I've been an analyst in the academic field and now I'm an analyst in the nonprofit sector, so I carry my occupation with me. That's much more characteristic of employment today in the United States than it was 40 years ago."
The study projects that by 2018 industry will need 22 million workers with new college degrees, but colleges and universities will produce 3 million less than that number. High tech industries have long maintained that the government should allow more highly skilled foreign workers into the country because of a skill shortage here and this new study will provide them with added ammunition.
One major question is how will the country pay for this new educational demand? The study estimates it will cost $158 billion by 2020 to educate an additional 8.2 million graduates, in line with President Obama's pledge to make America "have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."
But the Obama administration has set aside only $36 billion in its reform of post-secondary financing. The burden will clearly fall on the states, most of which have been cutting back on all forms of education as part of their efforts to achieve budgetary austerity rather than ramping up new programs.
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