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Great Careers May Not Require A Degree

by Daniel Hecker

Workers who have some college education but do not have a degree are more likely than high school graduates but less likely than college graduates to be employed in occupations that usually require a college degree. And they earn more than high school graduates but less than college graduates.

Information about the job market for college graduates is abundant. But little attention is given to another group of workers of nearly equal size--those who have some college education but no degree. A comparison of this group's occupational employment patterns and earnings data with those of workers with a high school diploma and workers with a college degree reveals what you might expect: Some college is better than none, and more is better than less.

In 1996, 17.2 million full-time workers reported having some college but no degree, compared with 17.7 million workers holding a bachelor's degree. These 2 groups, along with 29.1 million workers with a high school diploma and another 7.8 million workers with an associate's degree, accounted for about 81 percent of all full-time workers aged 22 to 64.

Data and Definitions

All data in this article are from the 1996 Current Population Survey (CPS) and are for full-time workers aged 22 to 64. The CPS groups workers by level of education and occupation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) analyzes the data further, classifying occupations by the level of education and training usually required for entry into each one. Because occupational patterns and median earnings are different between men and women, data are presented by gender.

Employment Patterns

A number of workers with some college were employed in occupational categories usually requiring college-level training. Twenty-four percent of men with some college were in occupations that required a bachelor's degree or more education, compared to only 11 percent of high school graduates. Not surprisingly, so were 27 percent with an associate degree, and 62 percent with a bachelor's degree. For women with some college, 22 percent were in occupations requiring a bachelor's degree or more, compared to 14 percent of high school graduates, 22 percent with an associate degree, and 57 percent with a bachelor's degree.

In 1996, men with some college were most likely to be in the category of managers not elsewhere classified. These managers held a variety of jobs in industries such as construction, manufacturing, computer services, and repair services.

Compared to men with only a high school diploma, those with some college were more likely to be managers not elsewhere classified, sales supervisors and proprietors, retail sales workers, and sales representatives. However, this group was less likely than the group with a high school diploma to be machine operators, except precision; truckdrivers ; automotive mechanics; and carpenters. Compared to men with an associate degree, those with some college were more likely to be managers not elsewhere classified, sales supervisors and proprietors, and truckdrivers but less likely to be engineers, electricians, and electrical and electronic equipment repairers. Compared to men with a bachelor's degree, they were more likely to be machine operators, except precision; truckdrivers ; and carpenters but less likely to be managers not elsewhere classified, sales representatives, and engineers.

Women with some college were more likely to be in a secretarial occupation than in any other. Compared to female high school graduates, women with some college were more likely to be managers not elsewhere classified, accountants, licensed practical nurses, and secretaries but less likely to be in retail sales, cleaning and building service occupations, and assemblers.

Compared to female associate degree holders, women with some college were more likely to be managers not elsewhere classified, bookkeepers, retail sales workers, and nursing aides but less likely to be registered nurses. Compared to women with a bachelor's degree, they were also more likely to be secretaries or bookkeepers but less likely to be managers not elsewhere classified, accountants, registered nurses, and teachers.

Earnings

Most workers with some college but no degree earned more than high school graduates and less than workers with an associate or bachelor's degree in 1996. This financial return associated with attending college is often described in terms of a wage premium--that is, those with some college or a bachelor's degree command an earnings premium over high school graduates of the same age group and sex. The reduction of earnings from not completing a degree is defined as a wage discount.

(1) This shows the earnings of workers with some college divided by the earnings of workers in each education group. For example, men with some college earned $1.13 for every $I earned by high school graduates but earned 93 cents for every $1 earned by associate degree graduates.

(2) For women with associate degrees, except registered nurses, the median was $440 and the index was .93.

Median earnings of men with some college but no degree were 13 percent higher than those of men with just a high school diploma; women with some college earned 14 percent more than their high school counterparts did. Compared to associate degree holders, however, men with some college earned 7 percent less--and women with some college earned 13 percent less. The corresponding differences were greater at the bachelor's degree level: Men with some college earned 26 percent less than bachelor's degree holders, and women earned 31 percent less.

Premiums and discounts for those with some college exist for two reasons. First, workers with some college were more likely than high school graduates but less likely than college graduates to be in higher paid occupations. Second, within an occupation, workers with some college usually earned more than their high school counterparts did. Compared to associate degree holders, however, men with some college earned 7 percent less--and women with some college earned 13 percent less. The corresponding differences were greater at the bachelor's degree level: Men with some college earned 26 percent less than bachelor's degree holders, and women earned 31 percent less.

Premiums and discounts for those with some college exist for two reasons. First, workers with some college were more likely than high school graduates but less likely than college graduates to be in higher paid occupations. Second, within an occupation, workers with some college usually earned more than their high school graduate coworkers and less than those who had graduated from college.

Employment data for occupational groups are divided into four categories, each consisting of groups with similar median earnings. The categories ranked by level of earnings from highest to lowest, include:
  • Executive, administrative, and managerial occupations; professional specialty occupations; technicians; nonretail sales occupations; and police and firefighters;
  • Precision production, mechanics, and construction craft occupations;
  • Machine operators, assemblers, and inspectors; transportation and material moving occupations; handlers, equipment cleaners, helpers, and laborers; and farming, forestry, and fishing occupations;
  • Administrative support occupations, including clerical; retail sales; and service occupations, except police and firefighter.
About 40 percent of men with some college were in the executive occupations group, which had earnings well above the median for all other occupations. In contrast, only 20 percent of men with a high school diploma were in this earnings group. Not surprisingly, so were 46 percent of men with an associate degree and 78 percent of those with a bachelor's degree. The machine operators group, which had median earnings well below that for all men, included only 20 percent of men with some college but 34 percent of high school graduates.

In the other two groups, patterns tended to lower earnings relative to those of men with high school diplomas, but the overall effect was minor. Men with some college were 2 percent more likely to be in the low-paid administrative support occupations. And men with some college were less likely than high school graduates to be in the precision production occupations category, which had median earnings that were somewhat above average.

Thirty-seven percent of women with some college, but only 24 percent of high school graduates, were in the executive occupations category, having the highest median earnings. Also in this category were 52 percent of women with an associate degree, and 77 percent with a bachelor's degree. Only 24 percent of women with some college, but 41 percent of women with high school diplomas, were in the categories having the lowest median earnings, those that include retail sales and precision production occupations. These two groups also had 17 percent of those with an associate degree, and 8 percent with a bachelor's degree.

However, women with some college were more likely than high school graduates to be in below-average earnings category of administrative support occupations.

Occupational earnings and premiums within occupations. Within each occupation, as within occupational groups, workers with some college usually earned more than their high school graduate counterparts but less than those with an associate or a bachelor's degree.

Men with some college had higher earnings than those with only a high school diploma in 70 percent of occupations for which there were statistically reliable data; women with some college earned more in 73 percent of occupations as well. Additionally, men with some college earned less than men with an associate degree in 76 percent of the occupations, while women earned less in 71 percent of occupations in the same comparison.

In some occupations, the earnings of workers with some college were the same or lower than those of high school graduates. This is usually because a greater proportion of workers with some college was young, and young workers with little or no experience usually earn less. Data examining occupational patterns only for those workers aged 35-64 show that, in almost all cases, workers with some college earned more than high school graduates.

Workers with some college employed in occupations such as nursing aides, and retail sales workers earned less than the median for all high school graduates. Meanwhile, workers with some college employed as engineers, managers and administrators not elsewhere classified, and financial managers earned premiums of at least 50 percent over the median for high school graduates.

Conclusion

Data in this article show that education pays off for workers with some college but no degree. In 1996, these workers were more likely than high school graduates to be in college-level jobs and to earn substantially more than workers with a high school diploma. Nevertheless, those with some college but no degree were less likely to be in college-level jobs than were workers with an associate or bachelor's degree, and their overall median earnings were below those of their college-graduate counterparts.

All differences in occupational patterns and earnings may not be attributable to level of education, however. People who complete just a few college courses may have different personal characteristics from people who do not, perhaps including level of maturity and ambition; verbal, mathematical, or mechanical abilities; or a preference for working with people, data, or things. These differences may affect their occupational choices and earnings. In addition, occupational patterns and earnings may reflect nonacademic training acquired on the job, through postsecondary vocational schools, in the military, or elsewhere. It is clear, however, that completion of some college coursework increases one's chances of entering certain occupations and usually increases earnings within that occupation.

Daniel Hecker is an economist in the Office of Employment Projections, BLS (202) 606-5713.

COPYRIGHT 1998 U.S. Government Printing Office
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