Want a Good Job? Here’s What Matters Most—and Why


Lately, we’ve been hearing about a few Big Tech firms who claim to have waived certain requirements for new recruits in a shift towards “skill-based” hiring.

However, a new study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that there’s really only one factor that matters if one wants to be certain of landing a good job in the United States.

What’s that factor?

It’s a traditional, four-year bachelor’s degree. In terms of importance, no other pathway to good jobs even comes close. And the best way to land a good job before age 30 involves earning that degree early, before one’s mid-20s.

Understanding the Pathways-to-Career Policy Simulation

A cynic might argue that a private college like Georgetown that’s similar to other prestigious Ivy Plus universities like Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern has a vested interest in perpetuating the narrative that undergraduate degrees are essential.

Moreover, it’s hard to find a professor with more of an establishment background than Dr. Anthony Carnevale, the study’s lead author and the Center’s director at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Previously, Dr. Carnevale served as the vice president for public leadership at Educational Testing Service from 1996 until 2006, and while he held that position, President George W. Bush appointed him to the White House Commission on Technology and Adult Education.

Nevertheless, this study’s data appears to be credible. The Georgetown team drew their conclusions by reviewing retrospective government data for 8,000 Americans born during the early 1980s. That analysis revealed 38 decision points during the 12 years after high school that contributed to these workers’ capacity to land good jobs before they turned 30. The team suggests that employment in such a job around age 30 amounts to a milestone that correlates with better financial outcomes during the later stages of a worker’s career.

The professors then built a statistical model that simulates the effects of these various “pathway changes at critical junctures” on the way to early adulthood, which they call the Pathways-to-Career Policy Simulation Model. This model enabled the researchers to isolate the factors that contributed to employment, assign values to those factors, and then rank their importance in landing a “good job.”

What’s a good job? The team defines such a desirable role primarily based on wages, as employment paying the minimum required for financial self-sufficiency across America. Although some of these positions earned much more in expensive metro markets like New York and San Francisco, the professors focused on such a job’s median compensation nationwide. These jobs’ salaries would amount to $57,000 per year in 2020 dollars, with the minimum requirement of about $38,000. All these roles also deliver healthcare and retirement benefits, like 401(k) plans.

Although the simulation identified ten changes in pathways bearing the greatest potential to improve employment outcomes, only one choice stood out above all the rest. In a statement, Dr. Carnevale said, “Our research clearly indicates that the bachelor’s degree is still the most traveled pathway to a good job.”

The researchers actually excluded data on the individuals who went to college directly from high school and then earned degrees during their early 20s because that group displayed such a huge proportion of outstanding employment outcomes. Moreover, the simulation shows that by the time they’re 30 years old, almost 765,000 more young adults would have good jobs if all eligible students had enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs before their 22nd birthday.

The Risks of Stopping Out

Dr. Carnevale’s team expresses special concern about all the Americans who launch bachelor’s degrees, but never finish them before their mid-20s. The researchers’ data shows that these folks only have a 40 percent probability of a good job by age 30. But if they completed that degree by age 26, they’d have significantly higher, 56 percent odds of getting one of those good jobs. That actually works out to a 40 percent increase in their good-job chances.

In fact, the simulation shows that high school graduates who start work on a bachelor’s degree before age 22 tend to do significantly better than those without any higher education. Folks who pursue an associate’s degree from a community college had a probability of landing a good job of 29 percent, and that works out to a 26 percent increase over the mere 23 percent good-job likelihood for those with no postsecondary education at all.

Furthermore, synergies exist through combining multiple interventions. For example, there are about 4.8 million 18- to-22-year-olds who curiously have no plans to attend college—even though they’re eligible and academically prepared. If these young adults not only entered college but also graduated, that would result in 1.2 million more of these folks in good jobs by age 30. This is a whopping 60 percent gain over the 765,000 additional young people who could be headed for good jobs if policymakers boosted enrollment within bachelor’s degree programs alone.

Why Technical Schooling Doesn’t Always Help

“Through this work, we also find there are alternative pathways to good jobs through career and technical education (CTE) and work experience,” says Dr. Carnevale. And that may be true even though none of these alternatives yields results as effective as a bachelor’s degree or its component curricula.

However, discrepancies exist among young adults of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. For example, according to the report, learning technical skills during high school raises the probability of students’ finding a good job by age 30 for all groups but one: it actually hinders the chances for Hispanic and Latino students.

It remains unclear why this effect exists. A co-author of the report and another CEW professor, Dr. Zack Mabel, offered this observation:

Addressing disparities in access to good jobs also requires combating bias and discrimination in the labor market, directing investments toward individuals from historically disadvantaged groups, and raising wages in undervalued occupations that are mostly filled by workers from marginalized groups and are crucial to the functioning of our society.

Ranked Summary of Interventions

Here is the ranked list of the 10 interventions recommended by the study’s authors, along with the marginal (additional) number of young adults each intervention would place in a good job by age 30:

  1. Entering a bachelor’s degree program by age 22: 765,000
  2. Earning a bachelor’s degree by age 26 after enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program: 573,000
  3. Earning a bachelor’s degree by age 26 after enrolling in a certificate or associate’s degree program: 479,000
  4. Working in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) occupation or other high-paying job at age 22: 310,000
  5. Entering a certificate or associate’s degree program by age 22: 261,000
  6. Earning an associate’s degree by age 26 after enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program: 242,000
  7. Earning an associate’s degree by age 26 after enrolling in a certificate or associate’s degree program: 201,000
  8. Specializing in career and technical education (CTE) during high school: 186,000
  9. Continuous employment between ages 20 and 22: 148,000
  10. Working in a blue-collar occupation at age 22: 45,000

Notice how this ranked list of interventions brings into sharp focus the overwhelming impacts of bachelor’s degrees as pathways to good jobs. These degrees are the key elements in the three top interventions, which would place between 479,000 and 765,000 additional adults in good jobs before their 30th birthdays.

The next runner-up—working without a bachelor’s degree in a STEM occupation or other relatively high-paying job at age 22—isn’t even close. The number of jobs yielded by Option 4 would need to climb by 55 percent to catch up with the number of good jobs delivered by the third option—earning an undergrad degree by age 26 after enrolling in a certificate or associate’s program. Moreover, the good jobs resulting after STEM employment would need to more than double—by climbing 147 percent—to catch the number of good jobs delivered to those who earn bachelor’s degrees within four years of their high school graduation.

For more than 16 years, experts have known about the college payoff—the transformative effects of bachelor’s degrees in boosting lifetime earnings. That’s largely because of the landmark 2007 economic analysis by Dr. Philip Trostel of the University of Maine, “The Fiscal Impacts of College Attainment.” Less well understood have been the economic effects of specific higher education and career choices at certain junctures. These are the significant contributions that Georgetown’s new study offers federal and state policymakers and adds to the research literature on lifetime earnings.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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