Guest Column

Data show four-year degree is most reliable path to prosperity

December 15, 2017
| By Lou Glazer |
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Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes a table showing the national unemployment rate and median earnings from work by education attainment. Every year, it shows the higher your educational attainment, the more you work and the more you earn at work, particularly for those with a four-year degree or more.

It’s worth noting because the public conversation — driven by far too many of our political and business leadership — is telling a very different story: That many are better off not getting a four-year degree and instead of going into the so-called professional trades.

Let's look at the same data and some more for West Michigan. The data come from the 2016 American Community Survey. It includes both those who work for an employer and those who are self-employed.

First, the unemployment rate for those 25-64 years old by education attainment. Overall, the annual average in metro Grand Rapids was 3.0 percent. For those with less than a high school degree, it was 5.8 percent, 3.3 percent for those with a high school degree or GED, 3.1 percent for those with some college or an associate degree and 2.2 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or more.

How about median earnings from work for those 25 and older? For all of metro Grand Rapids, median earnings from work were $36,255. For those with less than a high school degree, it was $22,498, $28,312 for those with a high school degree or GED, $33,888 for those with some college or an associate degree, $48,290 for those with a bachelor’s degree and $62,301 for those with a graduate degree.

The poverty rate for those 25 and older by education attainment: For all of West Michigan 25 and older it was 8.3 percent. For those with less than a high school degree, it was 26.6 percent, 10.5 percent for those with a high school degree or GED, 6.7 percent for those with some college or an associate degree and 2.9 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or more.

Finally, the labor force participation rate for those 25-64. Overall, it was 79.5 percent. For those with less than a high school degree, it was 58.2 percent, 75.8 percent for those with a high school degree or GED, 80.3 percent for those with some college or an associate degree and 87.3 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or more.

How does West Michigan compare to the nation? On all but median earnings from work, quite favorably. There was a lower unemployment rate for all levels of educational attainment, lower poverty rate for all levels of educational attainment and higher labor force participation for all levels of education except for those without a high school degree.

It is a different story, however, for median earnings from work. Overall, median earnings are nearly $1,700 lower than nationally. By education attainment, those without a high school degree have higher median earnings locally than nationally. But at all other levels of education, it’s lower. And the gap grows wider as educational attainment increases, from more than $1,600 for those with a high school degree or GED to more than $7,800 for those with a graduate degree.

The education attainment premium is strong in metro Grand Rapids. But it is even stronger nationally.

That said, the pattern is crystal clear. The higher your educational attainment, the more you are employed and the more you earn from work. Also, the higher your educational attainment the more likely you are to be in the labor market actively looking for work if you do not have a job and the less likely you are to be in poverty.

For each of the four data sets with every level of education attainment, your economic outcomes get better. No exceptions. Are there good-paying jobs that do not require a four-year degree? As we say repeatedly, yes. But the most reliable path to good-paying jobs, and maybe more importantly, good-paying 40-year careers, is by obtaining a four-year degree. Getting a four-year degree does not guarantee a good-paying job or career. But it is the most reliable path to prosperity for each of us, our kids and grandkids.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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