Differences in Employment Rates by Educational Attainment Levels

Education Pays For the past few months, we have camped out in the US Census Bureau’s Post-Secondary Employment Outcomes (PSEO) dataset, analyzing average earnings of bachelor’s degree-holders from data partner institutions in a variety of ways. The previous posts can be accessed at the data blog home page. While those posts looked at earnings data of college graduates, we have yet to explore data comparing employment outcomes based on varying levels of educational attainment.

Many conversations about the benefits associated with increased levels of educational attainment typically revolve around earnings, such as someone with a bachelor’s degree earning approximately $1 million more in a lifetime compared to a person with a high school diploma (SSA Research Summary). At a more granular level, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks earnings data on a monthly basis through its Current Population Survey (CPS), as the BLS publishes its findings in a variety of locations. One such publication is its Education Pays series. As shown in the visualization to the right, adults who are 25-years-old and older with a bachelor’s degree earned $1,305 per week (median usual weekly earnings) in 2020, as compared to the $781 per week that an adult with a “high school diploma, no college” earned. That difference of $524 per week equates to more than $27,000 in additional annual earnings for bachelor’s degree-holders compared to adults with a high school diploma without any college hours. At the top-end are terminal-degreed adults whose median earnings are close to $1,900 per week, or almost $99K per year.

The earnings-related data are just one facet of employment that the BLS analyzes. A form of employment outcomes that has been tracked longitudinally by the BLS is the unemployment rate by educational attainment for adults 25 years and older, which is a data point that grows increasingly more important as the fallout from the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 continue through 2021. 

Does higher educational attainment serve as a "recession-proofing" mechanism?

The dramatic measures taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic beginning in March 2020 ushered in the third economic recession in the past 20 years in the United States, as classified by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Based on a recent NBER report, the 2020 recession “officially” lasted from February 2020 to April 2020, which makes it the shortest US recession recorded. While this may meet the “technical” definition for recession and expansion, the practical effects of the lockdowns are still being felt in a myriad of ways, from vehicle manufacturers awaiting computer chips for their new cars and trucks to the supply-and-demand complexities associated with lumber costs and availability.

BLS Unemployment Data (Monthly)

Updated monthly, the BLS tracks unemployment rates for persons 25 years and older by educational attainment in its “The Employment Situation” news releases. While the most recent version shows data from July 2001 to July 2021, unemployment by education level has been tracked since 1992. In the first visualization below (BLS Unemployment Data), we have recreated the BLS chart to span the almost 30 years of available data using their four educational levels: “Less Than a High School Diploma”, “High School Graduate, No College”, “Some College or Associate Degree”, and “Bachelor’s or Higher”. Because the data presented are unemployment rates, the best-performing group has the lowest unemployment rate. Also, the gray segments show the NBER’s officially-designated recessions during the past 30 years in the United States.

Overview of general trends…

  • Bachelor’s Degree or Higher: The lowest unemployment rate for this group was 1.5% in April 2000 and the highest rate was 8.4% in April 2020. The overall average from January 1992 to July 2021 was 2.8%.
  • Some College or Associate Degree: The lowest unemployment rate for this group was 2.4% in June 1999 and the highest rate was 15.0% in April 2020. The overall average from January 1992 to July 2021 was 4.7%. 
  • High School Graduate, No College: The lowest unemployment rate for this group was 3.2% in November 1999 and the highest rate was 17.3% in April 2020. The overall average from January 1992 to July 2021 was 5.7%.
  • Less than a High School Diploma: The lowest unemployment rate for this group was 5.0% in July 2018 and the highest rate was 21.0% in April 2020. The overall average from January 1992 to July 2021 was 9.1%.
  • The month with the largest difference between highest and lowest unemployment was April 2020, when adults with Less than a High School Diploma had an unemployment rate 12.6 percentage points higher than adults with a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher (21% vs 8.4%). 
  • The months with the smallest difference between highest and lowest unemployment were July 2018 and July 2019, when adults with Less than a High School Diploma had an unemployment rate 2.8 percentage points higher than adults with a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher (5.0% vs 2.2% in both instances). 

What seems to jump off of the visualization is that the greatest gaps between the four categories of educational attainment are during and immediately following a recession. For example, during the 2007-2009 recession, the gap between highest (Less Than a High School Diploma) and lowest (Bachelor’s Degree or Higher) unemployment started at 5.6 percentage points in December 2007 and increased to 9.8 percentage points in June 2009. When comparing the Some College or Associate’s Degree  group with the Bachelor’s Degree or Higher group, the gap in December 2007 that was 1.7 percentage points almost doubled by June 2009 to 3.3 percentage points. 

The 2020 recession showed the most volatile shifts across-the-board in unemployment rates. In the span of two months from February 2020 to April 2020, the Bachelor’s or Higher group rose from 1.9% to 8.4%; the Some College or Associate Degree increased from 3% to 15%; the High school Graduate, No College group rose from 3.7% to 17.3%; and the Less Than a High School Diploma group increased from 5.8% to 21%. Overall, the mean unemployment rate rose from 3.4% in February 2020 to 15.5% in April 2020. By July 2021, adults with a Bachelor’s Degree or Higher were much closer to pre-pandemic unemployment rates than the groups without a four-year college degree or higher.

BLS Employment Data (Annual): 2015-2021

Because we typically think of outcomes that are “higher” on a scale as being “better,” we can subtract the unemployment rate data from 100% to calculate an employment rate. In the second visualization tab below, we are using slightly different categories that are more fine-grain. The primary changes are that “Bachelor’s Degree or Higher” is broken out into “Bachelor’s Degree Only” and “Advanced Degree,” while “Some College or Associate Degree” is disaggregated into “Some College, No Degree” and “Associate Degree.” The BLS has only been reporting data in these categories since 2015, which is why the data below span just the past six years. These data are also presented in annual averages because the monthly data are not seasonally adjusted.

The patterns/rankings are consistent with our intuition: higher levels of educational attainment lead to greater levels of employment. While the monthly data showed the dramatic spike in April 2020 during the pandemic, these annual averages smooth out the peaks and valleys in the data. However, what is clearly shown even in the annual data is that those adults (25 and older) with at least a bachelor’s degree were in a much better position in terms of remaining employed during the pandemic than those with an associate’s degree or lower. 

NOTES: If you are unable to read the labels in the visualization below, we recommend clicking the “Full Screen” button on the lower right of the visualization window to enlarge the information. Hovering over each point will provide a tooltip with additional information. 

So What?

The national data reviewed in this blog post is the proverbial “tip-of-the-iceberg” when it comes to analyzing employment/unemployment data by educational attainment. While the data presented above show differences in the overall unemployment rates by educational attainment, a number of important questions are prompted by these data:

  • When combined with demographic data, do unemployment/employment rates differ based on gender? Race/ethnicity?
  • Is there any interplay between unemployment, educational attainment, and geography (region of the US, state, county)?
  • To what extent does educational attainment affect how long someone is out-of-work when an unemployment event occurs?

These are the types of questions we will explore further in the next few blog posts as we seek to better understand the importance of educational attainment and how it relates to unemployment.

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