Four-year degrees are path to employment success


More evidence is coming to light that having a four-year degree or more is the most reliable pathway to employment in today's economy in West Michigan, as well as across the state and country.

The table below displays data on the employment rate — the proportion of the population that is employed — for those in their prime working years of 25-64 as measured by education attainment. It is split into figures for the entire country, Michigan and the seven-county Grand Rapids/Holland/Muskegon metropolitan area in 2011.

The employment rate is a better measure than the unemployment rate because it takes off the table those who are too discouraged to look for work and therefore are not counted. It’s a straightforward measurement of what proportion of a certain cohort has a job.

There is good news for West Michigan in the data. Metro Grand Rapids' employment rate at each level of education attainment mirrors the nation’s, and is actually higher than that of Michigan or metro Detroit and Lansing.

Just as with the national and state data, those with a four-year degree or more have the highest proportion working. And the proportion of those working goes up with each step of the education attainment ladder. In the country, state and region, demand is highest for those with four-year degrees or more. It is obvious that in none of those areas do we have too many college graduates.

Employer demand in the country, state and West Michigan is higher for those with a four-year degree than those with some college or an associate’s degree (the kind of mid-skill workers that are supposedly now most in demand by employers). Maybe most important is that the advantage is greater today than it was before the onset of the Great Recession.

The gap between those with a four-year degree or more compared to those with some college or an associate’s degree grew from 6.9 to 10.2 percentage points from 2006 — the year before the Great Recession began — to 2011. That information certainly seems to debunk the “new conventional wisdom” that we have too many citizens with four-year degrees or more.

Whether it’s the nation, the state or West Michigan, the numbers are clear: If you want to work, the best path is earning a four-year degree or more.

Lou Glazer is president of think tank Michigan Future Inc.

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