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As the Nation Makes Progress on College Attainment Goals, Critical Workers Still Left Behind

Feb 24, 2012

By Marcie Foster and Elizabeth Kenefick

The U.S. Census Bureau released five new data reports on Thursday of this week that illustrate the progress we have made toward building a more educated workforce. For the first time, more than 30 percent of U.S. adults over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, a 5 percentage point increase from only a decade ago when just a quarter did. This is a significant milestone as a greater number of jobs in the recovering economy likely will demand at least some education beyond high school.

The newly released Census data also provide insight into the economic value of postsecondary credentials at all levels. Not surprisingly, income goes up based on educational attainment. Median income for adults with a high school diploma is $2,550 monthly. However, those who obtained vocational certificates have median monthly earnings of $2,950, while those with associate’s degrees earn $3,456. Bachelor’s degree holders command even greater earnings of $4,355.

Despite an increasing percentage of higher-educated workers, we have a long way to go in terms of ensuring that the promise of a better future through postsecondary education is available to students of all ages, races and income levels.

While the data generally show that more workers overall are getting college-level degrees leading to higher earnings, disparities persist. Racial and ethnic minorities are far less likely to earn a traditional four-year degree. Only 19.8 percent of African American adults and 14 percent of Hispanics (of any race) have a bachelor’s degree or higher (although Hispanic college attainment is rapidly increasing) compared to 34 percent of white adults.

Some of the most thought-provoking data highlight how students who earn GEDs® instead of traditional high school diplomas are more likely to be left behind. Less than half of GED® recipients pursue postsecondary education compared to 73 percent of those with high school diplomas, and only 5 percent of GED® recipients eventually earn a bachelor’s degree.  What’s more, even when GED® holders receive postsecondary credentials, their earnings are likely to be significantly lower than students who take the traditional route to college.  Among adults who obtain a bachelor’s degree, those who have a high school diploma earn on average $6,305 monthly compared to only $4,825 for GED® holders—a difference of nearly 30 percent.

The nation’s economy continues to change. Many experts talk about a disconnect between available jobs and the skills of the current workforce. To continue to be globally competitive, the United States has to increase the number of people who are receiving postsecondary credentials. The traditional approach of ensuring high school students go on to college will not be enough to meet this challenge.The nation is getting older and the number of traditional high school students is declining. This means the nation has to focus on non-traditional students, including adults, to meet the demand for skilled workers. Without such a focus, our economy will be millions of college degrees short of what we need to maintain our economic competiveness. Federal and state policymakers should take note of these economic and educational trends and expand the use of policies and practices that enable more adults to complete a postsecondary credential and advance in their careers. 


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