Has the Recession Taken Its Hardest Toll on the Educated?

Among those who have fled the weak job market to go back to school, many are counting on shiny new degrees to pave their way to stable, gainful employment. A college education is still (though sometimes inaccurately) seen as a gateway to opportunity. If that’s so, we’d expect the college educated to also be the most insulated from the harmful effects of the recent recession.

To a certain extent, employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics bears that conclusion out. The below chart chronicles changes in the unemployment rate for workers aged 25+ based on education level since the recession started. As as we’d expect, the least educated are also the least likely to have a job in the post-recession economy, with the outlook looking better as education levels increase.

But that’s not anything new; the less educated are always less likely to be employed, as the data from Dec. 2007 make clear. Though the average high school dropout may still be less likely to get a job than a college grad, that doesn’t give us a good idea of how unemployment has changed in each group during the recession.

If we look at how each group has fared during the recession, the story shifts a bit. It turns out that unemployment among college grads and people with some college has actually risen more dramatically, in percentage terms, than for their less educated neighbors. The unemployment rate for people with less than a high school education has increased 65%, while for those with some college it’s jumped 122%, and 111% for those with a bachelors or better.

Thus, even though journalists might go on about how the educated have it better in the post-recession job market, it’s important to remember that it’s those people who have seen the most volatility in terms of job losses. There are some other issues here, of course – people with more education might be more likely to stick out the job search and, thus, be counted as “unemployed” than those who stop looking and drop out of the labor force.

But the point is that the employment market for the educated may have changed more dramatically than we assume. Even though their absolute unemployment rate remains much lower, the proportional shift they’ve seen is actually much greater. In some ways, then, better educated Americans may have actually suffered more from the weakning of the job market. It’ll be interesting to see if the employment, whenever it picks up, will reverse those proportional losses just as quickly.