Economic snapshot | Jobs and Unemployment

No shelter here: Young workers did not wait out the weak labor market in college

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As unemployment rates among young workers soared in lockstep with the overall rise in joblessness during and after the Great Recession, commentators often suggested that young workers could shelter from the poor labor market by enrolling in college. Reports of an “enrollment boom” implicitly spurred by this sheltering-in-college dynamic were repeated often.

Today’s snapshot – a preview of an upcoming EPI paper documenting labor market trends for young high school and college graduates – shows there is very little evidence that any enrollment boom ever happened. Even if one is willing to claim that a small increase in enrollments over long-run trends in 2009 represents a “boom,” growth in these enrollment rates has actually fallen below trend the past two years.

The figure shows the share of young (17-20) high school graduates who are enrolled in further education, by gender. It also provides a trend line for both genders and the overall enrollment rate; rates have been steadily rising for decades, so any claim of a recession-induced boom in enrollment should be judged against this steady trend. While the growth in enrollment rates ticked up in 2009, it actually lagged trend growth in 2010 and 2011 (note: look at the slope of the actual and trend lines, not just the levels).

The weak labor market caused by the Great Recession has not spared young workers, and enrolling in college has not proven to be effective shelter for this group.

With research assistance from Hilary Wething


See related work on Jobs and Unemployment | Young workers