Higher Education Maintains High Earnings Promise for Graduates
Today’s higher education student demographic is significantly different than it was even 20 years ago. As the number of non-traditional students grows, some of the traditional value propositions of higher education—the capacity to develop an educated citizenry and create lifelong contact networks—have taken a back seat to more quantifiable measures of value, future earning potential chief among them. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce recently released a report sharing their most current findings on the earning potential of recent higher education graduates, and in this interview Anthony Carnevale shares some insights on their findings.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are the Hard Times reports so valuable for university leaders, especially those serving non-traditional students?
Anthony Carnevale (AC): The purpose of these reports is to follow the economy. It’s to look at how it’s performing over time. That has been of great consequence since the 2007 recession. We followed that progress since before the recession and tried to stay up to date with what’s happening with students.
In case of this report, the customary data that’s released by the labor department and others is on the overall employment of college graduates. This is the only data that tells you what’s happening to recent college graduates—people who just graduated within the last year or two, and that of course is very different than what happens, in general, to college graduates in the economy.
Evo: The paper mentions that communications and journalism degree holders are still struggling to find work—even as the economy starts to turn and as demand for a number of other degrees starts to recover. What does that say about the viability of professional liberal arts degrees?
AC: People with liberal arts degrees in general—people in journalism, psychology and even those with high-tech streams like architecture—fared very badly over this past recession.
To some extent, that reflects a natural event in the sense that these people always have difficulty when the economy is down and they do better when the economy recovers. However, they never do quite do as well as people with degrees in engineering, mathematics, the sciences, business and education.
To some extent it’s structural, to some extent it has to do with the recessions. In the case of the architects it’s very particular to this particular recession because this recession began with a collapse in financial markets, which meant a collapse in building. Architects live off the building economy.
Evo: Post-baccalaureate certificates—offered by universities to recent graduates looking to add work-ready skills to their resume after college—are on the rise. How can these add value for students in non-recession-proof streams?
AC: Certificates and other forms of short-term education and training offer learning in small bites. It essentially gives students something extra, something relatively specific; some set of tasks and activities that are required on the job. It gives them a leg up and brings them up to date with new requirements and subjects that often aren’t included in regular degree programs.
Evo: Salaries for recent graduate-degree holders were found to be a little over $20,000 higher than those of college graduates, a truth that seems to hold among experienced workers as well. How should that impact a student’s decision when considering the value of pursuing an advanced credential?
AC: In the final analysis, the question that should always be asked before someone enters a particular field of study at a particular level is whether or not the added education will bring added economic or professional benefits. In general, it’s almost always the case that graduate education will do that for people.
Evo: Is there any difference between getting a graduate degree immediately and pursuing one after entering the workforce, in terms of earnings and employability?
AC: The most obvious reason to pursue a graduate degree immediately is that you may not be able to pursue it later on. Life happens to people and they take on new commitments—family, debts, houses, cars—and when the time to go to graduate school, they’re unable to spare the time or the money to do it. The second reason is getting a graduate degree, in most cases, puts you in a new labor market.
Evo: In your mind, when determining how a student would calculate their ROI from an education experience, what would be the factors that you think would play into that decision, that calculation?
AC: What generally guides education for all of us is our values and interests, and we see that in the data. There are people with the same test scores and the same profiles, but when we look at their values and interests they choose different majors. That is clearly the entryway to education, whether it’s at the BA or the graduate level. The money concern is relatively straightforward. We know now the extent to which both bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees in different fields of study will bring more earnings, although it is possible to have a relatively low-earning degree and do quite well.
The thing for people to keep in mind is that picking a major is not a sentence to a very specific earning.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the lessons that higher education leaders could learn from the Hard Times report?
AC: The real statement that’s made in the hard Times Report is that higher education is surviving the recession, at least in terms of its ability to deliver on economic value. There was some concern about that, especially early in the recession, we thought we might be headed for a world where the value of college education is going down. That’s clearly not the case. This data shows that convincingly and shows even more remarkably that the value of college degrees, relative to the value of high school degrees, has remained high.
Learn more about the job market for recent higher education graduates across disciplines by downloading the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce’s recent report, From Hard Times to Better Times.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Analyst