Economic Snapshot | Education

Two-thirds of adults have less than a four-year degree: Policymakers should work to make college more attainable for them, but also strengthen labor protections that help all workers

June is high school graduation season. While many of this month’s graduates will go on to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, most will spend their work lives without a four-year college degree. When considering how to strengthen the economy, policymakers should remember that most workers will never attain a four-year college degree and that these workers need viable options in the labor market to reach a reasonable standard of living with decent wages, sufficient hours, work supports, and benefits.

Recently, my colleagues Julia Wolfe, Zane Mokhiber, and I wrote about the prospects these new grads are facing in the labor market as well as in pursuit of higher education. In Class of 2018: High school edition, we found that young high school graduates have better prospects in the labor market that their older brothers and sisters had when they graduated in the more immediate aftermath of the Great Recession; however, compared to those who graduated into the 2000 labor market, these new grads face real economic challenges such as elevated levels of underemployment as well as lower wages and worsened wage gaps for black workers. Those high school graduates who wish to pursue further education also face significant challenges because of stagnating family incomes, the rising cost of college, and the subsequent rise in significant school debt.

The figure below shows that among young adults, 18- to 21-years-old, about one-third have a high school diploma. While many of the 18- to 21-year-olds with a high school diploma or some college will go on to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, adults 18- to 64-years-old without a four-year college degree still make up the majority of the overall working-age population—68.2 percent.

Figure A

The majority of adults have less than a four-year college degree: Shares of 18- to 21-year-olds and 18- to 64-year-olds with a given level of education, 2018

Less than high school High school Some college   Bachelor’s degree Advanced degree
All 18- to 21-year-olds 20.4%  34.0%  44.1% 1.4% 0.2%
All 18- to 64-year-olds 10.5%  28.3%  29.4% 20.9% 10.9%
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The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Note: The 2018 analysis here uses the average of the most recent 36 months, March 2015–February 2018.

Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey basic monthly microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau

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While the benefits to higher education should be made available to all those who wish to pursue them through increased state funding for higher education, stemming tuition hikes, support for the students who are most in need both financially and academically, and appropriate monitoring of loan terms as well as regulations to protect consumers from the predatory practice of for-profit colleges, the fact remains that the vast majority of working age adults do not have a college degree. Therefore we also need to pursue policies that will give young people with a high school degree a fighting chance as they enter the labor market—such as: raising the minimum wage, protecting workers from wage theft, providing undocumented workers with a path to citizenship, and ending discriminatory practices that contribute to race and gender inequities.

See related work on Education | Unions and Labor Standards

See more work by Elise Gould