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Based on an analysis conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, a much larger proportion of jobs in the U.S. will require higher education — even in the near term. This analysis — Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018— shows that fully 60 percent of jobs in the U.S will require postsecondary education by 2018 — well before the target date for Lumina’s “audacious” goal. For better or worse, the Great Recession is putting the relationship between higher education and the economy into stark relief, and we are making the connections between economic forces and higher education attainment.
Two simple facts point to the nature of this key relationship. The first is that college graduates are employed at much higher rates than are non-college graduates. Today, while overall unemployment rates are hovering around 10 percent, only 4.5 percent of college graduates are unemployed. It has become clear, not just to economists, but to millions of Americans, that completing some form of higher education is the best insurance against unemployment.
Data on wages are even more telling. Of course, it is well known that college graduates make more money than those who have only completed high school, who in turn make more money than high school dropouts. Frankly, that doesn’t prove much; in a tight employment market, employers can be expected to favor those with credentials over those without. What is less well understood is that the gap in earnings between these groups is growing. Even in this job market, employers are paying an increasing premium for college graduates. This same phenomenon is occurring in 29 of the 30 most developed countries.3 This is not a coincidence.
What is happening has been documented in Help Wanted and other reports: Employers increasingly depend on the skills and knowledge of their workers, and they are paying a premium to get those skills. Meanwhile, the well-paying, low-skill jobs that American industry used to provide in abundance are disappearing quickly. What is left, as documented by MIT economist David Autor,4 is a stratified job market in which jobs are either high-skill/high-wage or low-skill/low-wage. In this economy, workers with jobs in the former category are in the middle class or above; those with jobs in the latter category are the working poor. Just as importantly, the only route between the two strata is through education to obtain the skills and knowledge the global marketplace demands.