From the looks of it, young Americans are finally on their way to economic recovery. The latest jobs figures show unemployment for young Americans—those age 16-34—fell to 10.5 percent in December, down from a high of 15.1 percent in November 2009 and by a full 2 percent since last summer.
A closer look, however, reveals not all young Americans are sharing equally in the labor market recovery. In fact, some young Americans are hardly experiencing a recovery at all. And many that are seeing a rebound in their economic fortunes still have a long way to go.
Happily it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. There are ways policymakers can help struggling young Americans reclaim their future, starting with making their plight a bigger priority in 2014.
As it has been for years, young Americans with a college degree are much better off than those without one. The stark contrast is evident when looking at labor force participation rates, which is the share of the population that is counted as employed or unemployed. For young Americans with a post-secondary degree, labor force participation rates have been stable since 2010, but for those with some college or only a high school diploma, rates continue to fall. For young Americans without a college degree, it appears unemployment is falling at the expense of labor force participation.
Still, as young college graduates are all too aware, a four-year college degree is no longer a guaranteed ticket to financial success. It turns out that those with a college degree are finding jobs, but increasingly ones that are lower-skill. The result is a rise in underemployment and historically low real earnings. In 2012, young Americans age 18-34 working full-time with a bachelor’s degree earned about $54,300, in real terms. This is only slightly higher than the 16-year record low set in 2011, and in annual terms remains $3,300 below where it was pre-crisis in 2007.
Adding insult to injury is the rising student debt burden, about 90 percent of which comes from a decades old federal aid system that needs reform. Under the current system, college students are essentially stuck in the middle of a game of chicken between generous federal aid and rising college tuition. For example, the “historically low” increase in college tuition last year was still three times the average increase in real earnings for young college graduates in 2012. With average debt levels now at a staggering $29,400 per borrower, many young Americans and their parents are understandably rethinking the value of a college education.
As tough as young college graduates have it, this is still far better than the reality of young Americans without a degree. New PPI research finds that the unemployment rate for young Americans age 16-34 with only a high school diploma, though falling, remains over 14 percent, compared to 5 percent for young college graduates. Worse, real average annual earnings for young Americans with only a college degree were just $32,900 in 2012, still about 4 percent lower than real earnings in 2007.
Fortunately, opportunities exist for policymakers to help. With a concerted effort, we can design policies that directly target young Americans in and out of school and encourage better alignment of the skills of young Americans have with the needs of employers. This may include comprehensive education reform, redefining post-secondary education and training, addressing the rising cost of college and student debt, and promoting investment and asset building activities.
For example, over the next year, the Higher Education Act (HEA) is coming up for reauthorization. HEA could provide policymakers with an opportunity to reaffirm the value of college, by using the administration of federal student aid to encourage alternative forms of higher education. Going to a four-year college is so ingrained in society it seems to be the only acceptable option after high school; there is now almost one four-year college for every U.S. county. As a result, poor performing colleges get a free pass that doesn’t do anyone any favors—especially their graduates.
The first step to helping young Americans in 2014 is to convince policymakers to take their economic struggles seriously. If policymakers use the start of a new year as a new start for young Americans, 2014 could be a better year for all 80 million young Americans. Moreover, it could lay the groundwork for economic growth and prosperity in America for years to come.
Diana G. Carew is an economist and director of the Young American Prosperity Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.