Study: College degree unnecessary for 30 million 'good jobs'

A college education has been billed to millions of Americans as a tried-and-true pathway to eventual financial security, but a new study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce has tallied 30 million "good jobs" out there that don't require a bachelor's degree.

The report was developed through a partnership with JPMorgan Chase to profile what researchers describe as "good jobs" for those who don't have traditional college degrees. For people under the age of 45, that means a position with an annual salary of at least $35,000. For those over 45, that minimum earnings floor is raised to $45,000.

The study's authors ultimately found the average good job in the U.S. that doesn't require a bachelor's degree pays $55,000 annually. But they also identified 16 million such positions that pay more than that.

"In the past, these good jobs were found almost entirely in manufacturing and other blue-collar industries like transportation and construction. Employment in blue-collar industries, however, has declined primarily because of robots and offshoring of jobs," the report said. "These industries still hold the majority (55 percent) of jobs that pay with no [bachelor's degree], but that is changing quickly."

Indeed, researchers said traditional blue-collar employment declined by 30 percent between 1991 and 2015, with a loss of 2.5 million manufacturing positions. Those losses were offset, however, by a gain of 4 million good jobs in the services sector – including contributions of 1.4 million and 1 million from health and financial services employers, respectively.

These good jobs for folks without a bachelor's degree aren't evenly distributed geographically, with California, Texas and Florida collectively accounting for more than a quarter of the country's total of 30 million.

With respect to the number of good jobs that exist in each state, however, workers without a bachelor's degree appear most likely to find relatively lucrative employment in Wyoming, New Jersey and Maryland. Nationally, men were found to hold 70 percent of these good jobs to women's 30 percent, while 67 percent of the jobs were held by whites.

"While it is important to highlight this segment of the job market, there are still hard truths to face. Workers with [bachelor's degrees] have gained far more jobs since the Great Recession of 2007-2009 (8.4 million) than workers with less education (3.2 million)," the report said, also noting that the share of good jobs held by folks without a college degree declined from 60 percent to 45 percent between 1991 and 2015.

In other words, more than half of good jobs in America are held by people with at least a bachelor's degree.

In some sense, this is to be expected, given the country's steady rise in educational attainment. More than a third (33.4 percent) of Americans who were at least 25 years old last year had completed four or more years of college, according to the Census Bureau. In 1991, only 21.4 percent of the country could say the same.

"In the heyday of the industrial economy, young people could leave high school and easily find a good job in a nearby factory or mine," the report said. "If an economic downturn cost them their job, experienced workers could just wait until the economy picked up and then return to a similar job. Those days are gone."

To that end, the study indicated the number of individuals with good jobs that had only attained a high school diploma dropped by 1 million between 1991 and 2015, despite the U.S. population expanding considerably over that period. An associate's degree or some college experience is now viewed as a prerequisite for millions of good jobs that still don't require a four-year degree.

Researchers found that 9.3 million of the 30 million good jobs were filled by individuals with some college experience in 2015, while another 7.6 million held an associate's degree. High school dropouts were found to hold just 1.7 million of the country's good jobs.

"This transfer of work toward more educated workers has occurred because the skilled-services industries and even the old blue-collar industries increasingly rely on workers with higher-level skills to meet competitive requirements and to fully exploit ever more flexible technology," the report said. "In addition, a variety of non-degree credentials are sometimes necessary to get those jobs, or to advance in them."

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