June 24, 2010

College Degrees and Social Mobility

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

Are you currently or about to be a college student? A recent college grad? If so, you probably hope that your college degree will help you in the job market. According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP)’s annual study of college freshmen, in 2009 78 percent of college freshmen said it was very important or essential to be well-off financially. This isn’t a big surprise during economically hard times. But does a college degree help you move up economically?

A recent Los Angeles Times article posed this question, noting that “a diploma is no longer seen as a guarantee of a better job and higher pay.” In light of the rising costs of a college degree, which Sally Raskoff recently blogged about, it is worth exploring whether going to college is still linked with upward mobility.

As you can see from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) unemployment data below, more education means a greater likelihood of having a job. The recent recession impacted construction work and retail positions especially hard, so it’s not surprising that those with less education who might be more likely to work in those fields would have higher unemployment rates. Having a bachelor’s degree instead of only a high school diploma essentially reduces the odds of unemployment by more than half.


BLS data also show that more education means higher median income, as the graph below details. People holding advanced degrees have the highest median weekly income, but notice the big jump between earnings of those with some college and those with a college degree.


Seems pretty straightforward so far: going to college means earning more money. But when we look at earnings by education and gender, the picture becomes a bit more complicated. Education has a more modest impact on women’s weekly earnings. The BLS data show that men out earn women at every education level and that women with college degrees earn only slightly more than men without four-year degrees ($45 a week).

Women with advanced degrees actually have a lower median income than men with only bachelor’s degrees; likewise, women who have attended some college earn less than men with only high school degrees. For women, a college degree might yield less income than it does for men, but it still provides a boost compared with those without degrees.


The Times story notes that the percentage of bachelor’s degree holders in professional and managerial positions has declined over the past several decades, and future job growth is expected in the service sector. Jobs like customer service, food servers, and healthcare aides don’t tend to pay very well in contrast to professional and managerial jobs: in April 2010, the median weekly income of someone in a management-level position was $1,068 compared with $476 in a service job, according to the BLS. When you consider that service sector work is more unstable and subject to seasonal ups and downs, there is an even greater disadvantage.

So what does this mean for an aspiring college student or recent college grad?

You could choose your major based on the job prospects it carries. A 2009 Forbes magazine article lists the top ten majors with the lowest unemployment rates:


Mechanical Engineering

Electrical Engineering

Computer Science
Business Administration


Information Systems

Computer Engineering

Management Information Systems


Bear in mind there are likely people with degrees in these disciplines who are still looking for a job. But what if nothing on this list appeals to you?

Choosing a major only based on potential income virtually guarantees you boredom at school and on the job. I haven’t been shy about touting the marketable skills that a sociology degree brings, and a college degree is worth very little if it doesn’t enhance your personal skill set and interests.

The bottom line: college degrees matter. On average, your income will be higher and your chances of being unemployed will be lower if you have one. But keep in mind that a degree does not guarantee a permanent position in the middle class. With more people holding bachelor’s degrees than in the past, (11 percent of Americans 25 and older had a bachelor's degree in 1970, compared with nearly 30 percent today), there is more educated competition in the labor force than there was a generation ago. As the Brookings Institution recently reported, many middle-class families experience an “income rollercoaster” due to shifts in the economy.

A degree is like having a life vest while sailing: it’s really important to have, but it will not always save you. The rising costs of a four year degree may make earning one a bigger challenge, particularly as colleges raise tuition and fees. It’s likely that a degree has never been more economically important, but it is vital to be realistic about your earning potential, especially if you are going into debt in the process. Graduating with massive student loan debt could offset the income gains a degree brings.


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Thanks. It was very useful for me. The graph consisting income, education ang gender has something important to tell us: the slope for men is bigger than for women. It means that education has a more important role in men's improvement. From another point of view, we can say that the status inconsistency (the difference between income and education) is much more in women, while men are rather status consistents.

I notice that the data here is based on people 25 and older. Which neatly side steps a large number of people who graduated with their BA in the years after the 2007 financial disaster.

I would be interested in what the median pay is for people in that demographic. Anecdotal evidence (of my facebook friends, I know - totally scientific, right?) seems to show a lot of people who received degrees, even in hard fields like computer science and economics, are either unemployed or underemployed and have had little luck finding something better.

I know it's dangerous to extrapolate some kind of trend over such a short period of time, but then again, I feel like limiting this data at 25+ years or older cuts out a significant portion of people with degrees who are earning WAY under their abilities and predicted level of income.

I think the article describes the current situation with regards to improving your chances of finding a job if you have a college degree (BS Degree)right on target. I was able to move up in my field of work with on the job training and employer sponsored job related certifications. I now have twenty years plus in my field of work and find that getting the same job with out a college degree now is near impossible. No matter how much experience you have in a particular field if you do not have a degree you will likely be passed over by a prospective employer for a candidate that has a degree.

I think jobs are becoming less and less in the United States because of the cheapness to produce in other countries.And if you are not lucky enough to get a college than you will never make the true amount of money should.

I think the article describes the current situation with regards to improving your chances of finding a job if you have a college degree (BS Degree)right on target. I think bilateral plays a role.

This article clearly shows the important of education. The unemployment rate for people with less than a high school diploma is almost double that for people with some college education. The unemployment rate for a person with a bachelor’s degree is 3.4 times less than that for a person with less than a high school diploma. People with college degrees hold most of the jobs these days.
This article related to my sociology class because it talks about the inequality between men and women when it comes to income. Even with an advanced degree, women earn less than a man with a bachelor’s degree. We maybe have some equal rights, but looking at these statistics, it doesn’t seem like women are treated equally.

we all know that education could bring everyone more opportunities in life. we were brought up knowing that education will help us achieve and be more successful in any endeavor of life. but why do we have the gender gap earning. it seems to me that it so unfair for women knowing that women could also do things as man do. Women could go to college at the same time as men and do everything the opposite gender would do to finish and graduate.

This article relates to my sociology class because it talked about how women was given less opportunities in many aspects of life.

Re: 'My Story': The Impact of My Social Mobility

('My Story' - not attached. Summary is supplied below)

To me, 'upward' Social Mobility is the improvement of a cycle aimed at encouraging and inspiring peoples ideas to be put into practise. This, in turn, will motivate family members and communities to engage and follow this positive impact and thus minimise the dependency on Welfare Benefit and reducing numbers into the Criminal Justice system. In addition, for those who come from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds, this sense of belonging and interacting with this 'upward mobility' is what requires underpinning by the state.

I have produced a story 'My Story' that reflects the vast challenges I have experienced over a few years. As someone who has experienced a vulnerable and disadvantaged background, I am particularly as concerned about policy-making in this area to encourage social-mobility, as I am eager to play a significant part in mobilising a positive impact on people that will, ultimately, trigger an aspirational movement in communities.

'My Story' highlights me 'getting their against all odds... only to be failed'. It informs the reader of my hard work, determination to succeed and the fact that I had no choice but to place all my trust and reliance into a government scheme that was meant to support the aspirations of individuals like myself who were disadvantaged. Yes, I am talking about the governments 'Loan Guarantee Scheme' for start-up businesses. Originally, this scheme was called the (SFLGS) Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme. Little did I know that many issues existed on this scheme that was to affect me and my viable business opportunity. As a result of the third-party interest by banks, a Government Review of this scheme would highlight:

1. Bank managers - lacking an understanding of the scheme and how to process applications
2. Banking/government procedures taking, sometimes, 8-months to complete (proving detrimental to start-ups)
3. Graham Review - highlighting many more issues responsible for failing many viable businesses and thus failing 'people'
4. The scheme was responsible for failings hundreds (if not thousands) of disadvantaged people who otherwise would not even of got that far (source: IBAS Independent Banking Advisory Service).

As a result of all my hard work by 'getting their against all odds', as a direct result of the scheme its policy remit, I lost not only my viable business, but also my home (after suffering mental depression).

What made matters worse, proving more stressful for me, is when I contacted my MP. Basically, he did very little to highlight these failings in Parliament or even Westminster Hall. This is even when I submitted documented evidence highlighting the National Impact it has had on Social Mobility - those similar to me. Soon after, I found out that my MP was the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Small Business Group and he did not even botehr to highlight this issues. During my homelessness, I sought another MP (same Party) who, again, did not want to address the serious issues. Instead, after I stormed out of her surgery, she wrote me a letter telling me "I should get on with my life and leave the past behind." Very easy for this MP to say that.

Yes, MPs do NOT have a Statutory Legal Obligation to Represent. This means they can 'pick and chose' how they handle a particular issue. It is wrong!

'My Story' has a depth highlighting the consequences and overall impact these failings have had on my life - without Political support, Community support or, even, legal support. I am still struggling to get back on my feet. However, I am with knowledge of what I want to do - Support the Aspirations of the Community.

I do hope that you will be interested in 'My Story' - given the many challenges I had to deal with over the previous years. As 'My Story' highlights the fundamental basis of why Politics and policy-makers require scrutiny of the highest standard so that its service-users, 'the tax-payer', is protected and thus Social Mobility is enabled. I do hope that I can gain some support with the issues, the impact of such issues and my will to 'get back on my feet' and work towards an aims, I strongly believe in, once again.

Like Jury Service, whereby we, the Public, have a duty to play an active part in the Justice System, I strongly believe that Policy-makers should be under the same prescription whereby the tax-payer has a final say on how policy is developed and the impact on peoples lives.

A great article

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