Six months into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to upend educational routines for students of all ages. For recent high school graduates preparing to enter college or the workforce, however, the implications are particularly dire. Unemployment rates remain sky high, and a recent poll suggests that almost one-third of recent high school graduates will defer or cancel their college attendance plans if college and universities remain solely online this fall.
This is particularly bad news not just for the 14-campus Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which has already seen a severe drop in enrollment of almost 20% over the last decade, but also for young graduates as they make plans to enter college or the workforce.
Research shows that, on the whole, individuals earn more with an industry credential or two-year technical degree than with just a high school diploma, particularly in high demand fields. Almost two-thirds of new jobs will require some form of postsecondary training by 2030, and an estimated one-third of U.S. workers will need to change occupations or upgrade their skills significantly as lower-skill jobs become automated.
But it’s also true that where you live can greatly impact earning potential. A recent study by our organization illustrates the relationship between geography, postsecondary education, and income for residents of the Keystone State.
The report, “What You Make Depends on Where You Live,” found that statewide average earnings for Pennsylvanians with a bachelor’s degree are 52% higher than those with an associate degree ($89,278 vs. $58,847 for full-time, full-year workers), and 78% more than those with a high school diploma. Yet, these statewide averages also mask large differences by region.
Take the Philadelphia metro region, for example, home to over six million residents and the sixth fastest-growing economy among the nation’s top 10 largest metropolitan areas. Here, bachelor’s degree holders see a 54% advantage in earnings over associate degree holders and 86% more than those with high school diplomas. Earnings for bachelor’s degree-holding Philadelphians are just below the national average of $92,608, presenting a strong incentive for residents to invest in a traditional four-year college degree.
Contrast this with average earnings in the state’s smaller — and shrinking — metro regions. In areas like Lancaster and Scranton, each with populations of just over half a million, workers with four-year degrees see earnings that are just 36% and 27% higher than those with two-year degrees, respectively. While bachelor’s degree holders here see a lackluster return on that investment, earnings opportunities for associate degree holders remain strong. For example, two-year degree holders in Scranton see earnings premiums of 21% over those with just a high school diploma, higher than the national average of 17%. This could be attributable, in part, to the region’s strong manufacturing, transportation, and fracking industries that have been boosted by their proximity to the Marcellus Shale formation. These findings mirror a national pattern whereby the smaller the metro area, the lower the earnings premiums for a bachelor’s degree.
Of course, lower-than-average earnings from a college degree don’t necessarily mean that young people in the smaller towns and cities in the state should forgo some type of postsecondary credential or training. Given the lower cost of living, young adults planning to live in Pennsylvania’s smaller cities or towns may find that a two-year degree or even a one-year industry credential is a ticket to a middle-class lifestyle. That’s particularly the case given the sizable cost of a college degree in Pennsylvania, where the average public institution tuition is the third highest in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the continued economic and educational consequences of COVID-19 will likely complicate decisions young adults make about their future for the foreseeable future. So what should educators and advisers be saying to young people today as they make key decisions about their future? That a secondary degree or credential will still pay off for most of them. But they also need to consider where they want to live.