Much recent discussion has questioned whether high-priced college educations are showing a good return on investment. But as a report released April 20 by the Hamilton Project shows, one thing is clear: Americans without much education are doing substantially worse than their college-educated peers.
“[N]on-college educated workers are substantially more likely to work in lower-paying service occupations than in the recent past,” the report’s authors write. “In contrast, individuals with a bachelor’s degree or more are just as likely to be employed today as they were in 1990, in similar occupations, and with steadily rising earnings.”
For the study, the researchers examined government data to compare how American workers have fared between 1990 and 2013. Workers were split into eight categories based on education levels: men with less than a high school degree, women with less than a high school degree, men with a high school degree or some college, women with a high school degree or some college, men with a bachelor’s degree, women with a bachelor’s degree, men with an advanced degree and women with an advanced degree.
The data showed that over the past two decades, workers without bachelor’s degrees have become less likely to find full-time, full-year work. Moreover, the kind of work that these people can find has actually become worse paying since 1990.
Men without much education, in particular, have been hit hard. The median earnings of men between 30 and 45 without high school diplomas decreased from $31,900 in 1990 to only $25,500 in 2013 — both in 2013 dollars. That’s a reduction of 20% between 1990 and 2013 when adjusted for inflation.
Earning a high school diploma was only a moderate benefit, as men in this group saw a 13% decline over the same period. Women did slightly better but still not well: a 12% decline for those without high school diplomas and a 3% gain for those with diplomas or some college.
“A strong high school education is not only important developmentally, but it is also an essential part of the preparation as young men and women move on to the university level,” says Peter Cohen, Associate Director, Riviera Schools. “A robust and comprehensive secondary school education can also equip students with life skills and academic or even technical skills that will allow them to be more competitive in the workforce.”
The Hamilton Project is a research group at the Brookings Institution; the most recent study was conducted by Melissa S. Kearney, Brad Hershbein and Elisa Jacome. It is available for free online.