report: How Much Protection Does a College Degree Afford?

This study examines whether a college degree protected these recent graduates from a range of poor employment outcomes during the recession, including unemployment, low-skill jobs, and lesser wages. The report draws upon data from the 2003–2011 Current Population Survey (CPS) to examine the early labor market outcomes of 21- through 24-year-olds. « Read It »  With David Grusky, Natassia Rodriquez and Chris Wimer.



  • Although all 21–24 year olds experienced declines in employment and wages during the recession, the decline was considerably more severe for those with only high school or associate degrees.
  • Before the recession, just over half of young adults with a high school degree (HS) were employed, compared to almost two-thirds of those with an associate degree (AA) and nearly three-fourths of those with a bachelor’s degree (BA).
  • Job losses during the recession made existing employment gaps even worse. The employment declines for those with HS and AA degrees were 16 and 11 percent, respectively, compared with 7 percent for those with a BA degree.
  • The comparatively high employment rate of recent college graduates was not driven by a sharp increase in those settling for lesser jobs or lower wages.
  • The share of non-working graduates seeking further education did not markedly change during the recession.
  • Out-of-work college graduates were able to find jobs during the downturn with more success than their less-educated counterparts.
  • The proportion of BA degree-holders who transitioned from being excluded from the labor market (i.e., not working or in school) to employment barely changed during the recession.
  • In contrast, the proportions of HS and AA graduates who found employment declined significantly with the recession—by approximately 10 percent for those with AA degrees and 8 percent for those with HS degrees.


Media Coverage

Associated Press; BBC; Chronicle of Higher Education; Diverse Education; Inside Higher Education; NBC Today; New York Times; USA Today.