The Diminishing Relevance of the High School Diploma

Is today’s high school diploma ostensibly worthless when it comes to finding a job? A study recently released by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University seems to say so. The Rutgers online survey was conducted between March 21 and April 2, and covered a nationally representative survey of 544 high school graduates from the classes of 2006-11 who did not have bachelor’s degrees. While in recent years college graduates have faced the nasty showers of a gray and cloudy economic climate, the situation is even glummer for those with only a high school diploma.

As for the cold, hard facts presented in the study: Prior to the onset of the financial crisis, 37% of high school graduates were employed full-time, and an additional 23% were working part time, usually because they could not find full-time jobs. But only 16% of people who have completed high school since 2009 are employed full time; another 22% work part time, but many of these part-time workers are seeking full-time employment. The numbers in both scenarios are ugly, but the odds of finding employment with only a high school diploma on your resume are even slimmer now than they were before.

This chart shows the percentage of high school graduates who are working full time, unemployed and looking for a job, or unemployed and not looking for a job. It divides high school graduates into two categories: those who graduated before 2009, which is when the recession really took a hold of the U.S. economy, and those who graduated after.

The soaring unemployment rate among high school graduates is attributed to a weak economy and a decreasing number of traditional, middle-class jobs. And while the majority of these individuals recognize that they need further education to find more promising career opportunities, a number of obstacles stand between them and earning the degree that will improve their job prospects. Aside from cost, high school diploma holders worry about the course work they will have to balance against the family responsibilities they already have.

If there’s any positive news, it’s that the climate is more favorable for college grads. While only three in 10 high school graduates are employed full time, college graduates are employed at nearly twice that rate. As of April, the unemployment rate among college graduates stood at a suitable 4%. However, reports on the job market that the Class of 2012 will face can seem contradictory. Some reports promise sunny skies and fair opportunities, while others are far more dismal in nature. But whichever you choose to believe, it’s clear that college graduates will have a much easier time finding work than those with only a high school diploma.

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