It’s well documented that college graduates overall have better labor market outcomes than those without degrees. They participate in the labor force more, have a lower unemployment rate and earn higher wages. And in the context of job polarization, a college degree is the surest path to one of those high-wage jobs. In fact, if you dig into the Oregon Employment Department’s latest occupational projections, 79% of the growth in high-wage jobs requires a college degree for an entry-level candidate. If you want to be a competitive applicant for the high-wage jobs, a full 90% of the expected growth requires at least a Bachelor’s degree.
While our office is working on updating some trends and outcomes in higher education — it’s been more than three years since our report on education and student debt in Oregon — I wanted to share some more life cycle work I’ve been doing. This compares trends over one’s lifetime but also across generations or birth cohorts in the state. Previously we looked at how younger generations in Oregon spend more on housing than previous generations did at the same point in their life cycle.
How you read this graph is that each colored line represents an age or birth cohort. These are really 5 year groups, so the 1960 cohort is people born between 1958 and 1962, for example. As you move from left to right, the graph shows the share of the population with a Bachelor’s degree or more across the state. The higher the line the larger the share with a college degree.
The good upshot is educational attainment in Oregon continues to increase. Millennials are, and continue to be on track, to be the best educated generation on record. This is due to the continued increase in the share of young adults enrolling in school. Some of this increase is due to societal trends but some is influenced by the business cycle as job opportunities dry up during recessions, thus reducing the opportunity cost of attending college. However attainment in Oregon also increases due to migration, which disproportionately consists of those with college degrees in recent decades. All told, attainment is increasing with each successive generation which bodes well for future economic growth.
The one exception is the 1960 cohort (gray line). Here the share of the population with a college degree is lower than the 1950 cohort (green line) at every point in the life cycle. I honestly am not sure what is going on here. The national figures show educational attainment flattening with a small dip, but not this large of an effect as seen in the Oregon data. This decline is visible in the published Census 2000 tables, so it’s not just a sample size issue of examining the microdata either.
My initial guess would it has something to do with the timing and the business cycle. The 1950 cohort came of age in the 1970s; a time when Oregon was booming and there was a massive wave of domestic inmigration to the state. The 1960 cohort came of age in the 1980s. Of course in Oregon the 1980s were a much darker economic period and the state actually lost population due to the severity of the early 1980s recession. I suspect this difference is driving these results, however I am not 100% certain here and it’s hard to tell based on the data. Even so, the fact that the college degree gap between the 1950 and 1960 cohort in Oregon has persisted ever since is rather fascinating.
Stay tuned for our higher education update in the coming weeks.