Press Releases

News from EPI Class of 2019 high school graduates are entering a solid labor market, but remain worse off than similar graduates in 2000

In the Class of 2019: High school edition, EPI Senior Economist Elise Gould and Research Assistants Julia Wolfe and Zane Mokhiber provide in-depth analysis of the labor market for young high school graduates. The report focuses on high school graduates (ages 18–21), analyzing their demographics and whether they are employed, enrolled, both, or neither. The authors then look at unemployment rates and wage trends to paint a picture of recent high school graduates’ economic prospects as they decide whether to enter the labor market or continue their education.

“While the recovery has shown overall positive trends, inequities remain,” said Wolfe. “High levels of unemployment and underemployment persist for young African American workers, and young women still face a gender pay gap.”

Due to the steady progression of economic recovery since the Great Recession, the members of the high school class of 2019 who enter the labor market right after graduating have better job prospects than the classes of 2009–2018 did. However, compared with those who graduated in the full-employment labor market of 2000, the class of 2019 still faces real economic challenges.

“Young high school graduates face a difficult decision when deciding whether or not to go to college,” said Gould. “While college graduates generally fare better in the labor market than high school graduates, the rising cost of college and resulting student loan debt, coupled with uncertain wage prospects makes the financial decision all the more risky.”

“Policymakers should work to make college more affordable for those who decide to continue their education,” said Mokhiber. “However, to improve job quality for all working people, policymakers should raise the minimum wage, protect workers from wage theft, provide undocumented workers with a path to citizenship, and end discriminatory practices that contribute to race and gender inequities.”

At the same time, because of stagnating family incomes and the rising cost of a college degree, many young high school graduates will only be able to access the benefits of a college degree by taking on significant debt. Students at for-profit colleges generally take on more debt than students at nonprofit private and public schools do, but they are less likely to finish their degrees. Black students take on a disproportionate amount of debt, in part because their families generally accumulate less wealth than white families.

Findings from the report include:

  • While 45.7 percent of all 18- to 21-year-olds have some college education, the vast majority (65.8 percent) of the overall working-age population over age 21 does not have a four-year college degree. About one-in-three young adults (ages 18–21) has a high school diploma only. One-in-five has less than a high school diploma.
  • After rising dramatically during the Great Recession, the share of high school graduates who are idled—neither employed nor enrolled in further schooling—has declined, but a larger share are idled now than they were in 2000.
  • Of the young high school graduates who are not enrolled in further schooling, nearly one-in-10 is unemployed. This share is on par with where it was when the economy was at full employment in 2000. Young black high school graduates are roughly twice as likely to be unemployed as their white and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) peers.
  • The underemployment rate for young high school graduates is 19.1 percent, slightly below where it was in 2007, but well above where it was in 2000. Over a quarter of young black high school graduates are underemployed, a much higher rate than among young white, Hispanic, and Asian American/Pacific Islander graduates.
  • Between 1989 and 2019, average wages for this group grew only 11.2 percent in total. Young Hispanic high school graduates saw faster wage growth than their white, black, and AAPI peers did between 2000 and 2019.
  • The gender wage gap for young high school graduates narrowed slightly over the past 19 years due to a slight increase in women’s wages and a decline in men’s wages. The current gap is $1.29 an hour, or $2,680 per year for a full-time worker.
  • Between 2000 and 2019, white high school graduates’ wages grew by less than a percent, while black graduates experienced a drop in pay of 2.7 percent, increasing the black-white pay gap to 11.1 percent. Black graduates have the lowest hourly pay at $10.92 per hour.