Has Education Paid Off for Black Workers?

janelle thumbJanelle Jones, a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., is the co-author of a report that examines the extent that education has produced economic benefits for African Americans. She has written a brief summary of her research below that contains a link to the full report. Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, where she majored in mathematics. She earned a master’s degree in applied economics from Illinois State University.

Black workers today are better educated and older than they were three decades ago, but are still less likely to be in a good job now than they were in 1979. A new report from John Schmitt and I examines this deterioration of job quality for Black workers in the United States.

Over the past three decades, the “human capital” of the employed Black workforce has increased enormously. In 1979, only one-in-ten (10.4 percent) Black workers had a four-year college degree or more. By 2011, more than one in four (26.2 percent) had a college education or more. Over the same period, the share of Black workers with less than a high school degree fell from almost one-third (31.6 percent) to only about one in 20 (5.3 percent).

Economists expect that increases in education will increase workers’ productivity and translate into higher compensation. But, the share of Black workers in a “good job” – one that pays at least $19 per hour (in inflation-adjusted 2011 dollars), has employer-provided health insurance, and an employer-sponsored retirement plan – has actually declined. The drop in good jobs among Black workers has been significant, especially for Black males. Between 1979 and 2011, the share of Black men in good jobs fell from 26.4 percent to 20.9 percent. While the share of Black women in good jobs did rise from 14.5 percent in 1979 to 18.4 percent in 2011, Black women are still less likely to have a good job than Black men.

Despite this educational upgrading, Black workers overall, and at every education level – less than high school, high school, some college, college or more – are less likely to be in a good job today than they were in 1979. For Black workers with at least a four-year degree, 37.4 percent were in a good job in 2011, a sharp drop from 44.3 percent in 1979. This decline for Bblack workers with a four-year college degree or more is especially striking because, over the same period, the share with an advanced degree more than doubled, from 3.1 percent of all Black workers in 1979 to 8.5 percent in 2011.

These same trends are also true by gender. As the share of Black men with a college degree nearly tripled, the portion in a good job dropped by 11.0 percentage points (from 49.4 percent in 1979 to 38.4 percent in 2011). Similarly, as Black women more than doubled their college share, those with a good job fell from 40.8 percent in 1979 to 36.8 percent in 2011. Although Black women have made educational improvements and increased their share in good jobs, at every education level they were less likely to be in a good job in 2011 than in 1979 and less likely, in every year, than Black men to be in a good job.

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  1. I’ve long suspected that college wasn’t really paying off for black people. I suspect that the percentage of white people for that matter with college educations who have a “good job” has declined since 1979. Well, at least we can start saving all that tuition money we would have blown.

    • College does pay off for degree holders, including Black ones. If they possessed only High School Diplomas, for instance, most would make significantly less over a lifetime by comparison. And degree holders would make more even if they didn’t have “good jobs” as defined by the above researchers – this according to contemporary data. But it has always been true, in my memory, that African American men and women have made less, in general, and by profession, than similarly situated Whites. Racism and its offspring (s) explains this.

  2. Education is truly important for our uplift. However, we need to more closely examine which specific disciplines and/or career tracks are most likely to give black people a leg up.

  3. Did you consider what African Americans are studying in college? I suspect that African Americans in general tend to gravitate to more liberal art degrees versus STEM & Business degrees. If this is true, then I’m not at all surprised that African Americans are not as economically well off. As a campus recruiter, I witness this disparity a lot when I’m trying to increase diversity for my firm. Overwhelmingly the majority of African Americans I encounter aren’t studying more quant majors and sometimes have lower GPAs (below 3.0 cumulative GPA) than their White/Asian peers. Those who do meet that initial bar are highly sought after by major corporations. We must encourage our children to pursue more STEM backgrounds to be competitive in the global (Yes, GLOBAL) marketplace because you’re no longer competing with just students here in the US but around the world.

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