Are the advantages of a college degree declining?

College graduates entering the workforce—diplomas in hand and ready to take on new challenges—are both excited and anxious about their prospects, yet anxiety may well trump excitement when entering the job market during a recession.

New research published yesterday by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that the effects of graduating into the Great Recession of 2007-2009 as well as the previous recession following the dot-com stock market crash in 2000 has a stronger negative effect than graduating into previous recessions. The increasing vulnerability of college graduates in the labor force in the 21st century compared to the last quarter of the previous century may very well be a sign of a big shift in the U.S. labor market.

The authors, Joseph Altonji and Lisa Kahn of Yale University and Jamin Speer of the University of Memphis, look at data on the labor market outcomes of recent graduates from 1974 to 2011, with particular emphasis on graduates between 2004 and 2011. Their top-line findings confirm results from other studies, but with an interesting twist.

First, recent college graduates experience large reductions in earnings. A worker graduating into a large recession (defined as a 4 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate) will see a 10 percent reduction in earnings in their first year, according to Altonji, Kahn, and Speer. This effect sticks around for a few years, so that on average the worker sees a 1.8 percent loss in earnings every year over a 10-year period.

But these effects are not the same for all college graduates. Grads who major in fields that are higher paying on average are sheltered from the effects of recessions to a certain extent. Their earnings reductions are much smaller. A chemistry major, for example will have access to such high-paying jobs that her earnings won’t be significantly reduced by a recession. So studying a field that pays more on average can protect you from recessions to a certain extent.

But the interesting twist is this—the volatility-dampening effect of earning a degree targeted toward a more lucrative profession appears to be declining, and the intensity of the earnings losses inflicted by a recession seems to be increasing.

By looking at the subset of workers who graduated in 2004 through 2011, Altonji, Kahn, and Speer find that the Great Recession led to larger reductions in earnings for college graduates. But the effect isn’t wholly from the size of the recession. What’s also changed is the earnings loss for each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, which indicates deeper links between the overall health of the overall economy and the unemployment rate for college grads. The authors also find that the income stability conferred by studying a higher-paying major have also declined.

And this effect isn’t just for workers who graduated around the Great Recession. The authors find very similar effects once they expanded the group to include 1998 to 2011 in their sample. Workers who graduated in the wake of the bursting of the dot-com stock market bubble in 2000 saw a similar proportional decrease in earnings as workers who graduated during or right after the Great Recession.

What can explain the increasing effect of recent recessions on college-graduate earnings and the declining relative value of studying in-demand fields? The authors don’t have an answer for the deep underlying factor, but they do find that college graduates may be now be experiencing the labor market the way the rest of the population has for a while now.

Of course, college graduates still often do better in the labor market during recessions than non-graduates. But the results of this important study by Altonji, Kahn, and Speer suggest that the educational advantages earned by college grads is declining. The implications of that trend would have significant ramifications for how we think about the overall labor market and efforts to help workers get higher paying jobs.

September 30, 2014


Post-secondary Education

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