Don’t Forget about High School Grads

Last week, we released  The Class of 2015, our annual report examining the job and wage prospects for newly-minted high school and college graduates. When we release this study, the media tend to focus on the chances college graduates have for snagging a job. But I want to submit a humble plea: don’t forget about the high school grads. After all, they make up the majority of young people.

Only 9.7 percent of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 have a college degree or more. 52.7 percent, meanwhile, have a high school degree or less (as shown in Table 1), and another 37.6 percent have only some college experience. And this trend isn’t unique to young people—even when you look at workers who are a little bit older, college graduates are still a minority. A significant share of workers age 24–29 have only a high school degree (26.4 percent) or some college experience (30.7 percent) and only 34.1 percent have a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

Table 1

Highest degree earned, by age and demographic, 2015*

Age 17–24 Age 24–29
All Men Women White Black Hispanic All Men Women White Black Hispanic
Less than high school 24.8% 26.1% 23.5% 22.5% 26.6% 30.9% 8.9% 9.7% 8.0% 4.6% 9.2% 21.6%
High school 27.9% 30.1% 25.7% 26.1% 32.2% 32.1% 26.4% 29.9% 22.9% 23.8% 33.0% 32.5%
Some college 37.6% 35.8% 39.5% 39.2% 35.9% 32.9% 30.7% 29.4% 32.0% 30.4% 36.7% 29.9%
Bachelor’s degree 9.0% 7.5% 10.5% 11.5% 4.9% 3.8% 26.6% 24.6% 28.5% 32.5% 17.2% 13.3%
Advanced degree 0.7% 0.6% 0.9% 0.8% 0.5% 0.3% 7.5% 6.4% 8.5% 8.6% 4.0% 2.8%

* Data reflect 12-month moving average as of March 2015.

Note: Race/ethnicity categories are mutually exclusive (i.e., white non-Hispanic, black non-Hispanic, and Hispanic any race).

Source: EPI analysis of basic monthly Current Population Survey microdata

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When you look at the wages that young people with a high school degree are making, they are far less than what college grads can expect. The average young high school graduate who does not enroll in further schooling makes $10.40 an hour, which has declined 5.5 percent from the $11.01 they were making in 2000. $10.40 an hour translates to an average full-time, full-year worker salary of just $21,632 for high school graduates. To put that in perspective, that is less than is needed to lift a four-person family above the poverty line and less than the amount needed for a one adult, one child family to get by in every area in the United States.

We currently have an economy that puts many people at a disadvantage, and workers with only high school diplomas in particular are being left behind. Due to weak job opportunities, many college graduates are taking jobs that normally don’t require a college degree at all. In an economy with limited job opportunities and wages stagnating across the board, young people are playing a cruel game of musical chairs, and college grads are more likely to get a chair than those without a degree. The outcome of this game shows up in the data: young high school grads have an unemployment rate of 19.5 percent, and 37.0 percent of high school grads are underemployed, which means they either want a job but have recently given up looking for work, or have a job that does not provide the hours they need.

As we create policies to help young workers, we need to keep high school graduates in mind. And that doesn’t just mean making college more accessible and affordable. Although providing more opportunities for underserved students to go to college is a good thing, we need to create good jobs for those with a high school degree, too. We can do this by using everything in our tool box to encourage full employment, by strengthening the bargaining power of workers, by setting standards to ensure we’re creating good jobs with benefits and that pay a living wage, and by raising wages for workers across the board.