Opinion: Despite growing skepticism, a degree still matters in job market

A new analysis suggests there will be 18.5 million job openings per year on average in the United States through 2031, of which more than two-thirds will require at least some college education. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

A new analysis suggests there will be 18.5 million job openings per year on average in the United States through 2031, of which more than two-thirds will require at least some college education. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Many American parents understand that college is a reliable path to the middle class. A new report suggests it may now be the only path. Despite a growing narrative that devalues higher education, an analysis of U.S. job trends shows that 72% of jobs will require postsecondary education or training by 2031.

Researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce project there will be 171 million jobs in 2031 in the country, an increase of 16 million net new jobs from 2021. While 10% of American jobs in 2021 went to workers without a high school education, only 6% will do so in 2031. During that period, the analysis suggests there will be 18.5 million job openings per year on average, of which more than two-thirds will require at least some college education.

The report, “After Everything: Projections of Jobs, Education, and Training Requirements Through 2031,” lands amid increasing doubts about the value of a college degree. Those doubts are coming from the halls of Congress, where Ivy League campuses are derided as bastions of wokeness, to the halls of local high schools, where students are seeing less pressure to pursue degrees.

“Couple the influx of infrastructure jobs with politicians on both sides saying people don’t need degrees, and you get a generation of young people who think college isn’t necessary,” said lead author Anthony P. Carnevale. “But our findings show, once again, that postsecondary education and training has become the threshold requirement for access to middle-class status and earnings. It is no longer the preferred pathway to middle-class jobs; it is increasingly the only pathway.”

The report’s authors address the fears that generative artificial intelligence and automation will displace human workers, citing history as a guide. “We had the same concerns about mechanization and it didn’t happen” said Nicole Smith, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce’s chief economist and co-author of the new report. “Yes, some jobs will be lost to AI, but others will be created,” said Smith. Those new positions will require significant education and training.

Nicole Smith is a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, where she leads CEW’s econometric and methodological work. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy Photo

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Smith advises parents faced with a young teen ambivalent about college to suggest, “Don’t close the door to going or not going now. Instead, keep those doors open.”

A college degree offers protection when booming job markets slow down, she said. “Now, companies are hiring anyone who is fairly competent with a pulse,” said Smith, “and there is no evidence when we look at indicators of that ending soon. But if you have a boom, you must have a slump. Nobody is hoping for it, but everything going up must come down. And the first out in a slump are those who don’t necessarily have the education for those jobs.”

Forgoing a degree leaves young workers more vulnerable, Smith said. “You would be in a better position if you get into a job without the bachelor’s and then go back to school to get it.”

Young workers looking to deepen their skills have to make sure they invest in a relevant degree or credential. Citing the surge in quickie certificates in hot areas like coding, Smith cautioned, “They say you can get certified in a month and make $100,000. It is just not happening. The certificates that pay well take at least a year or two years to complete.”

Smith also warns against blindly accepting the assertion that big companies don’t care any longer whether job applicants hold college degrees. “The ads may say you don’t need a degree, but you have to look at the hires. The hires still have bachelor’s degrees,” she said. “They see value in that seat time you spend in college, in the critical thinking you develop, that interaction with ideas.”

Smith, who holds a doctorate in economics from American University, recalls once commenting to her boss that she could have done her job with just a master’s degree. But her boss told her, “I wouldn’t have hired you without a Ph.D.”

On reflection, Smith said, “I didn’t recognize that those four extra years of maturity and critical thinking had value on my marketability and on my overall ability to do the job. I really couldn’t do this job without the degree.”

About the Author