How Many College Grads Do We Need?

Today at a meeting of the UNC Strategic Directions Committee, members heard a presentation about degree attainment. Specifically, how many North Carolina workers are projected to need college degrees in the future?

Dan Cohen-Vogel presented data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showing that North Carolina will likely need between 23.4 percent and 32 percent of its workforce to have bachelor’s degrees in 2020. (Today, 28.1 percent of North Carolina workers have bachelor’s degrees.)

The low figure, 23.4 percent, is based on projected job growth and the minimum education required for those jobs. The higher figure is also based on projected job growth, but assumes that recent trends in workers’ actual education levels persist in 2020.

But before the UNC System ramps up to meet that demand, it’s important to consider one current trend—underemployment. Recent data show that a significant portion of college graduates are either working part-time or working in jobs that do not actually require college degrees. In 2010, the Economist found that a third of American graduates aged 25-34 work in low-skill jobs. And 24/7 Wall Street calculated earlier this year that North Carolina has the 4th-highest underemployment rate in the country—at 17.5 percent.

Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018 by Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that many college graduates are working in what are generally considered “high school jobs.” Among people working as cashiers, 10 percent have an associate’s degree or higher and 23 percent more have some college. The paper’s data also show significant percentages of people with college education in such jobs as farming, fishing, forestry, construction, installation, maintenance and repair, food preparation and serving, and other occupations where the training is on the job rather than in the classroom.

That level of underemployment translates to lower incomes. Among Americans making $20,000 or less annually, 6 percent have master’s degrees or higher, 14 percent have bachelor’s degrees, and 9 percent have associate’s degrees. There’s a similar pattern for the group earning between $20,000 and $35,000 per year—5 percent have a master’s or higher, 15 percent have a bachelor’s, and 11 percent have an associate’s degree. That’s a large number of people with college education who are earning below-average incomes. If any of those graduates have debt, it’s likely that they’re financially worse-off than their coworkers who didn’t go to college.

Members of the Strategic Directions Committee should take rosy projections of education demands with a grain of salt. We shouldn’t base long-term planning on unsustainable employment trends. It might be wise to undershoot the mark rather than risk saddling future graduates with underemployment and student debt.

Jenna A. Robinson

Jenna Ashley Robinson is the president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, NC.

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