American men enrolling in college at record levels as jobs go high-skill

Students walk on the campus of Hunter College of The City University of New York.
Students walk on the campus of Hunter College of The City University of New York.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - After years of losing jobs to automation or off-shoring, American men are enrolling in college at record levels as higher education promises to make males more attractive in a job market that is increasingly requiring more skill.

It's also a promising sign that men are starting to catch up after a long stretch of trailing female peers in educational attainment.

Of the 1.5 million men in the high school graduating class of 2016, just over one million, or 67 per cent, were enrolled in two- or four-year institutions last fall, according to new Labor Department data. That's up more than 6 percentage points from 2012, surpassing recession-era levels when the weak economy pushed students to stay in school and wait out the downturn. It's also the highest share on record in Labor Department data going back to 1993 and in an alternative series from the National Center for Education Statistics going back to 1960.

The steady rise in male enrollment over the last four years is the longest sustained period of gains since at least 1960, according to Labor Department and NCES data.

The matriculation rate for women, at 72 per cent last year, has long exceeded that of men - a function, at least in part, of men foregoing post-secondary schooling for blue-collar work that doesn't require such education.

The steady rise in male college enrollment since 2012 suggests that young men "seem to have gotten the message" that securing a stable job these days requires more than a high school diploma, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington.

He co-authored a 2016 report that found almost all of the net new jobs added during the recent economic recovery went to the college-educated.

In the modern labour market, workers need further skills to compete for more complex entry-level jobs, especially as technological change and globalization hit predominantly male-occupied sectors like manufacturing, construction, and transportation, he said.

While manufacturing employment is up 8 per cent from its post-recession low in 2010, nearly five million jobs have been lost in the sector over the past 17 years. American manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 at almost 20 million, just a year before the male college enrollment rate reached its all-time low of 47 per cent.

Earnings increase with each level of education. Male workers 25 years and older with a bachelor's degree reported median weekly earnings of US$1,369 in the first quarter of 2017, over 70 per cent more than their peers holding high school diplomas. Advanced-degree graduates earned US$1,756 per week, over triple the wage of high school drop-outs.

The increase in male college enrollment, if sustained, could help reverse the steady decline in labour force participation observed among men in their prime working years, which a 2015 White House report attributed to a multitude of factors, including falling employer demand for less-skilled labor.

As of March, 89 per cent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 were either working or looking for work, while a near-record 11.3 per cent had completely exited the labor force.