Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

FINDING No 1: Compared to young people with degrees, high school graduates are less confident about their financial prospects and much less likely to be on a solid career path.

By their mid-twenties, most people have finished their formal education and started working. Most have begun to build lives independent of their parents, and many have started families of their own. Life has begun to take shape for them.

Yet even at this relatively young age, those who enter the workforce armed with only a high school diploma have begun to realize that their economic path in life may be difficult. Just 36 percent say it is very likely that they will be financially secure in their lifetimes. For young people with degrees,7 the world looks very different—more than half (55 percent) fully expect that their lives will be economically stable.

The economic recession of 2008 and 2009 hit younger Americans hard. In this study, 16 percent of young people not currently in school report being unemployed regardless of education level.8 But for those with jobs, the difference between having a college degree and having a high school diploma is already evident.

  • Career versus “just a job”: Most college graduates (63 percent) see their current job as a “career,” and relatively few think of it as just a job “to get you by.” But for high school graduates, the situation is almost completely reversed. Just 4 in 10 see their current job as a career, while a third (33 percent) say it’s just something to help them get by. As one young woman from Fort Wayne put it: “[My] high school diploma is not doing anything [for me] these days.”
  • Paid by the hour and not earning as much: Most employed high school grads (72 percent) work in jobs that pay by the hour, compared with only a third of the college grads (33 percent). And high school graduates are considerably more likely to be low wage earners. Nearly 3 in 10 (28 percent) earned less than $25,000 in 2009—just 1 in 10 college graduates earned this little. Meanwhile, only 15 percent of high school graduates earned $75,000 or more. College graduates were almost three times as likely to earn this much (40 percent).
  • More likely to go from job to job: More than a third (36 percent) of high school graduates say they’ve had five or more employers since they finished high school. Only 1 in 10 college grads (11 percent) have had this many employers since receiving their degree. This may be because high school graduates have spent more time in the workforce; it may also indicate that many young people without degrees haven’t yet found jobs that are a good match with their skills and interests. It may also reflect the insecurity of the jobs that high school graduates are most likely to find. Research has shown that hourly jobs have higher turnover rates than salaried jobs,9 and that they are more likely to be eliminated during lean economic times.10 This is how a young man in Washington, D.C., saw the situation: “The people that don’t have the degrees, don’t have the education or the skills or qualifications to get better paying jobs—they are being affected [by the poor economy and layoffs] more so than anybody else.”
  • Worries about whether there are jobs for them: For the young people surveyed who were unemployed, the high school grads were three times more likely (29 percent) to strongly agree with the statement “I may not be able to find a job in the next year or so,” compared with only 11 percent of college graduates. “I read something [that] said the unemployment rate for people with at least a four-year degree is 5 percent. . . ,” a young man in D.C. told us. “If you don’t have as much education, if you don’t have as much training in your area, you find yourself on the outside looking in.”

Financially Insecure Nearly All Their Lives

For many high school graduates, finding themselves in an uphill struggle in a tough job market is the continuation of a lifetime of economic insecurity. Young adults without college degrees are more likely to come from financially troubled families. While more than half (53 percent) of college graduates said that their family generally had extra money each month while they were growing up, only 41 percent of high school graduates could say the same. High school graduates are more than twice as likely as college graduates (21 percent versus 8 percent) to say that their parents had trouble getting by financially every month. And as other studies have shown, the educational status of parents often carries forward.11 About half (51 percent) of high school graduates said the highest degree that either of their parents received is a high school diploma (only 28 percent of college graduates said this). Fewer than one in five high school graduates (18 percent) said that at least one of their parents had a four-year college degree or higher; 55 percent of those with degrees said this.

[7] In this report, “college graduates” or those “with degrees” are respondents who successfully completed a four-year or two-year degree or a licensed certification program. “High school graduates” in this report are defined as those whose highest credential is a high school diploma and who are not currently in a college or certification program.

[8] This is a larger figure than what is reported in the Current Population Survey, which states that as of April 2011 the unemployment rate for adults aged 25–34 is 9.4%, because Public Agenda includes all young adults who said they were unemployed, whether they are looking for work or not (the Bureau of Labor Statistics only reports as ‘unemployed’ those who have been looking for work within the past month). See the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey” (April 2011). Retrieved May 6, 2011, from

[9] Carnevale, A., and Rose, S. Low earners: Who are they? Do they have a way out? In R. Kazis & M. Miller (eds.), Low-Wage Workers in the New Economy (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press, 2001): 45-66.

[10] Appelbaum, E., Bernhardt, A., and Murnane, R. Low-Wage America: How Employers Are Reshaping Opportunity in the Workplace (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003).

[11] Haveman, R., & Wolfe, B. (1995). “The determinants of children’s attainments: A review of methods and findings.” Journal of Economic Literature 33 (1995): 1829-1878.