In our previous blog post, we introduced a dataset from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that includes unemployment rate data broken out by educational attainment level. That post explored the national data from the BLS’s Current Population Survey (CPS) that have been published on a monthly basis since 1992 showing the average unemployment rate for persons 25 years and older in the United States. The monthly data showed that higher levels of educational attainment serve somewhat as a “recession-proofing” mechanism, as the effects of recessions are less profound for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher than for adults included in the other categories of educational attainment.
This blog post continues to use data published from the CPS that include unemployment rates reported by a variety of demographic variables. While the previous analysis showed data spanning almost 30 years, the unemployment data disaggregated by demographic variables and educational attainment levels has only been reported since 2015. These data are reported as annual averages by the BLS, so the following analysis will include six years of trend data. Because the data presented are unemployment rates, the better-performing groups have lower unemployment rates.
The first visualization below shows differences in unemployment rates by race/ethnicity at an overall level, and then broken out by the five educational levels included in the BLS data: “Less Than a High School Diploma”, “High School Graduate, No College”, “Some College, No Degree”, “Associate Degree”, and “Bachelor’s Degree or Higher”. When compared with the differences along gender lines shown later in the blog, there is greater variance in unemployment rates when we explore the data across these four race/ethnicity categories in the BLS data: Asian American, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, and White. The general trend across all groups is the same, with improving unemployment rates from 2015 to 2019 before fairly dramatic shifts to higher unemployment rates in 2020.
Across the top row, the Overall averages from 2015 to 2020 show that adult Americans of Asian descent and White adults have approximately the same six-year average unemployment rate: 4.1% for Asian Americans and 4.2% for Whites. The average unemployment rate for Hispanic/Latino Americans increases to 5.4%, while Black/African-Americans have an unemployment rate of 7.8% for the six years in the data. If we follow the trendlines from 2015 to 2019, the rank-ordering remains the same, before the annual average for Asian Americans increases to the same as Hispanic/Latinos in 2020.
Moving down the rows of educational attainment lends further support to the general finding from our previous blog post: increasing educational attainment improves unemployment rates for all adults in the data. This is especially true for persons of color. For example, the average unemployment rate for Black or African American adults with less than a high school diploma is 13.2%, as compared to the average unemployment rate of 3.8% for Black adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. This 9.3-percentage point difference is more than double the difference for White adults in the data (4.2 percentage points), almost triple the difference for Asian Americans (3.3 percentage points), and more than triple the difference for Hispanic/Latino American adults (3.0 percentage points).
Increased credentials also help close gaps between race/ethnicity groups within educational attainment levels. For the adults with less than a high school diploma, the six-year average difference between the highest and lowest unemployment rate was 7.9 percentage points, whereas the average difference between the highest and lowest unemployment rates in the bachelor’s degree or higher category is 1.4 percentage points across the six years in the data. For those adults with at least a bachelor’s degree, the smallest gap between highest and lowest unemployment rates in a single year was in 2019, with Black/African American adults 0.8 percentage points higher than White adults (2.8% vs 2.0%). Even though all educational levels experienced worse unemployment rates in 2020, the gaps were narrower based on higher levels of educational attainment. The highest difference was 6.1 percentage points in the less than high school diploma group, while there was a 2-percentage point difference between highest and lowest rates in the bachelor’s degree or higher group.
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.
In the second visualization, we look at differences in unemployment rates by sex (as reported in the BLS data) at an overall level, and by the same educational levels as above. In the top row, we see the Overall averages by sex across the six years of data. From 2015 to 2020, adult females experienced an average unemployment rate of 5.3% compared to 4.8% for adult males in the data. The smallest gap was seen in 2019 of 0.3 percentage points (3.6% vs 3.3%), with the Covid-related recession in 2020 pushing the gap to 0.8 percentage points (8.7% vs 7.9%). While the overall average is fairly close, differences exist in unemployment within and across educational attainment levels. The largest difference between women and men is in the group with the lowest educational attainment level, “Less Than High School Diploma,” with women averaging 2.1-percentage points higher than men across the six years of the data. For the other four categories, the unemployment rates are fairly close, with overlapping data points in a number of observation years. The lowest average difference can be seen at the “Bachelor’s Degree or Higher” level, where there is just over a 0.2-percentage point gap on average from 2015 to 2020. When comparing unemployment across educational attainment levels, women appear to experience more improvement than men. For example, in 2020, women with a bachelor’s degree or higher had an unemployment rate that was almost 5 percentage points lower (10.3% vs 5.4%) than women with just a high school diploma, while the gap for men in the same two educational attainment categories was 4.2 percentage points (9.1% vs 4.9%) in 2020.
Proponents of higher education have long-held to the premise that increased educational attainment improves life outcomes for those earning a college or university credential, whether it be an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or an advanced degree. Through the use of the BLS data in this post and the previous one, we have seen that higher levels of educational attainment serve to improve employment outcomes of adults 25-years-old and over. We also see that persons of color, especially Black or African American adults, in the BLS data see greater improvement in unemployment rates with higher educational attainment when compared to other race/ethnicity groups. The data certainly show that gaps still exist, but promoting higher levels of educational attainment have the potential to continue to shrink those gaps in the future.