Bachelor's Degree Is Still Best Path to Middle-Class Jobs and Earnings, Report Says

November 14, 2011

Earning a bachelor's degree is still the best path to middle-class employment and wages in the United States, and while those with only a high-school diploma can achieve the same status, it will become harder for them to find and secure such jobs, says a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The report, "Career Clusters: Forecasting Demand for High School Through College Jobs, 2008-18" outlines the different industry clusters expected to offer the best prospects for employment and wages for those with a high-school diploma, an associate degree, and a bachelor's degree.

The report was produced in collaboration with the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education and the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.

It builds on a previous study put out by the Georgetown center that looked at the growing disconnect between the types of jobs employers need to fill and the number of Americans who have the education and training to fill those jobs.

Jobs are still available for those whose highest educational attainment is a high-school diploma, the report finds, but they are mostly in four male-dominated career clusters: manufacturing, architecture and construction, distribution and logistics, and hospitality. Of those four areas, the highest-paying jobs are in manufacturing and construction.

The study also concludes that women need education beyond high school to earn the same wages as men with only a high-school diploma.

For example, a man can earn $35,000 annually with a high-school diploma in the manufacturing sector, while a woman must obtain a postsecondary credential and work in health care to earn as much, the report concludes.

"A woman just can't make it with only a high-school diploma," said Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor at Georgetown who directs the Center on Education and the Workforce. He spoke at an event hosted Monday by the American Youth Policy Forum where the findings of the new report were discussed.

Obtaining no more than a high-school diploma will put workers on an increasingly difficult road to middle-class status, but the outlook is much brighter for those who have taken at least some college courses or earned an associate degree.

Jobs for workers in this category tend to fall in six occupational clusters, compared with the four that still employ workers with high-school diplomas or less. The highest-paying jobs in this category are in the business, management and administration, and manufacturing clusters. Examples of specific jobs and salaries include general and operations managers who earned $71,000 with an associate degree, and accountants and auditors who earned $42,200 with some college but no degree. The other clusters include hospitality; marketing sales and service; transportation, distribution, and logistics; and health science.

Opportunities expand even more for workers who earned a bachelor's degree or higher. Seventy-two percent of the jobs available for such workers were concentrated in nine occupational clusters, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics; government and public administration; information technology; and health science.

In addition, the occupational clusters with the highest demand for workers with a bachelor's degree also tend to be those that are growing—actually adding new jobs in addition to replacement jobs, the report finds. Health science, for example is projected to rank first in the number of jobs added and second in overall growth rate through 2018.

Those fast-growing clusters also pay some of the better salaries. In the financial cluster, actuaries with a bachelor's degree earned an average of $121,500, and engineering managers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) cluster earned $117,100.

The report drives home the point that a college education is still valuable, even in a down economy. The days of workers graduating from high school and working their way from the mailroom to a corner office at a large company are gone. Today's economy puts a premium on education, training, and flexibility, the report concludes.