Two-Year College Degrees Have Diminished in Value

The employment-to-population ratio of Americans ages 25 through 54, the most straightforward measure of the health of the job market, has now clawed back about 80% of its pandemic losses.

This leaves so-called “prime age” Epop a little more than 2 percentage points, or 2.5 million jobs, short of its pre-pandemic level. But the recovery has been much, much faster than those that followed the 2001 or 2007-2009 recessions. The October reading of 78.3% released last week was higher than at any time during Barack Obama’s presidency.

So who isn’t back on the job yet? There are many ways to slice that. Here I’m going to focus on educational attainment, a flawed but indispensable way to get at the various kinds of work people do, as well as maybe their social class. It doesn’t get a huge amount of attention in monthly jobs report commentary because the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t release most of the numbers in seasonally adjusted form, meaning that you can’t really compare October to September and so on. The BLS also releases educational breakdowns only for all people 25 and older (and thus not 25 through 54). Here’s how October’s numbers compare with those from before the pandemic in October 2019.

When last I examined these data early last year, what stood out was how tough the pandemic had been for women with only high school degrees — both in absolute terms and in comparison with men at the same education level. The high school-only category is the largest of the groups in the above chart, accounting for about 28% of the 25-and-older population in 2020. It’s also a rough approximation for the working class, and working-class women were hammered last year by a double whammy of jobs lost because of pandemic-related shutdowns and child care challenges brought on by remote schooling. As of February 2021, their employment-population ratio was 6.2 percentage points lower than it had been in February 2020, versus a 4.6-point decline for high school-only men.