High School Grads Face Bleak Employment Prospects

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In recent months, a number of people have cast the college-for-all goal as unrealistic, perhaps even undesirable. Some doubters already question the intrinsic value of a college degree, and it doesn’t help that many recent college graduates are having a hard time finding full-time employment. Of course, for educational equity advocates, the issue isn’t whether all students should eventually go to college. Educational equity is about ensuring that all students emerge from high school adequately prepared to choose college, if they so desire. That said, the college-for-all goal remains in our national best interest, as college graduates have much better employment prospects than individuals with only a high school diploma. And now, a new study of recent high school graduates who are not enrolled in college shows many wish they had prepared better for college and career.

Using a national survey of 544 young people who graduated high school between 2006 and 2011 and were not enrolled in college at the time of the survey, researchers at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development examined employment outcomes for individuals who entered the contracted labor market both before and during the recession. Findings reported in Left Out. Forgotten? Recent High School Graduates and the Great Recession reveal employment particulars for these graduates, what they feel about their jobs, and how they view their future prospects in light of their educational attainment.

Researchers Carl Van Horn, Cliff Zukin, Mark Szeltner, and Charley Stone found that, overall, only 27 percent of the surveyed high school graduates had secured full-time employment, compared with college graduates who are employed at almost twice that rate. Further, high school graduates who are in the workforce tend to hold unstable positions, with nearly 90 percent working hourly jobs and 70 percent holding temporary jobs. And while roughly 60 percent reported relative satisfaction with their jobs overall, only about 20 percent viewed their jobs as stepping stones or careers.

The study also revealed the deleterious effects economic constraints can have on college aspirations. Over 60 percent of survey respondents, and nearly 70 percent of black and Hispanic respondents, said that, at the start of high school, they thought they would probably or definitely go to college. Unfavorable economics was the primary reason cited for not attending or finishing college.

With 64 percent of individuals claiming they would need at least an associates degree to pursue a successful career, young people seem to understand their need for higher education to reach a better life. Yet, they are not sure educational opportunities are available to them. Only 38 percent have definite plans to get more education in the next five years. Those who don’t plan to attend college in the next five years most commonly cite financial barriers and the need to work as hindrances.

While educated, employed adults continue to debate the “value” of higher education, this study goes straight to the source: those entering the labor force without a degree. According to them, a high school diploma alone does not open doors to sustainable, high-wage employment.

— Anneliese M. Bruner