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Perspective: The 4-Year Dividing Line

Deseret News

November 8, 2023

New survey shows the compounding benefits of college degrees. Here’s how to help those without degrees to catch up

When it comes to jobs and work, the past three years have been among the most tumultuous in decades. From mass layoffs in the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic to surging reemployment and wages as the country returned to work, it has been the best and worst of times for American workers.

To improve our understanding of worker attitudes in the midst of this change, the Survey Center on American Life recently released the second of three social workplace reports — a comprehensive survey we conducted on the hopes, priorities and challenges shaping workers’ lives. Our findings offer a unique glimpse into the complexities of the American labor force and the importance of flexibility and workplace culture when it comes to satisfying and retaining workers.

The Educational Divide

One of the most striking divides in the American workforce is between those with four-year degrees and those without. Across a number of important dimensions, the workforce seems to be built for the success of these college-educated workers. On measures such as perceived fairness in treatment, trust of supervisors, job-based mentoring, and open, supportive work cultures, people with college degrees outscore those with less than a college degree.

We found that 70% of college-educated women feel well treated by their bosses often or always, while only 58% of women with less than a college degree say the same. A similarly sized gap exists for men: 64% of college-educated men report fair treatment, compared to 52% of men with a high school degree or less.

The educational divide extends to mentoring: fewer than half (44%) of high school educated workers discuss career goals with their supervisors at least some of the time, nearly 20 points below the 62% of college-educated workers who report such discussions.

On the company side of the equation, college-educated workers are also substantially more likely than workers without college education to work for firms that provided a range of important benefits.

College-educated workers were more likely to have seen across the board salary increases (45% vs. 37%), work for employers who reimbursed for education or training (38% vs. 19%), be offered a permanent, flexible work-from-home policy (37% vs. 12%), or celebrated company achievements (62% vs. 35%). Forty-nine percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree reported that their employer sponsored a social activity in the last 12 months, more than twice the rate among high school-educated workers (24%).

Such company-wide investments in employees likely contribute to the increased workplace satisfaction of college-educated workers, 58% of whom are very or completely satisfied, compared to 52% of non-college workers. 

These are important and significant findings — educational advantages, and disadvantages, tend to compound over time. College degrees make it easier to find work. Once in a job, college degree holders tend to get more attention from managers, which helps build the skills and connections that support advancement into benefit-enriched working environments.

Conversely, those who begin their careers without four-year degrees have a more difficult time finding, keeping and advancing on the job.Lower levels of mentoring among these workers limits access to skill development and internal promotion as well as access to other workplace benefits like flexible scheduling. Not surprisingly, these differing job environments result in differing levels of job satisfaction. College degrees remain an important divide and distributor of benefits in American society, including in the workplace.

What do workers value most — flexibility or pay?

Pulling back from the focus on education, we see some of the common concerns of American workers. When we asked workers what they value most when choosing a job, 78% said flexibility is paramount, outpacing even wages as the primary concern. Flexibility doesn’t just mean remote work. Despite its continued prevalence after the pandemic return to work, remote work is a top priority for only about one-third (35%) of workers. Setting aside focus in the popular press, younger Americans in particular don’t seem to value remote work as much as other workers. Just 37% describe the ability to work remotely as “one of the most” or “very” important factors when choosing a job.

On the other hand, the desire for flexibility to balance work and personal life grows with educational attainment. Twenty-seven percent of workers with a high school education or less rank it as one of the most important factors when choosing a job, compared to 37% of workers with a bachelor’s or higher. These findings suggest that more highly educated workers have more leverage to push for hybrid arrangements that balance work among life’s competing demands.

Unlike flexibility, we found only modest declines in preference for pay as educational attainment increases: 20% of high school-educated respondents ranked pay as one of the most important factors in choosing a job, while 17% of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher say the same. At the same time, highly educated workers are nearly three times more likely to say making a meaningful contribution to society is one of the most important concerns when choosing a job. This evidence may indicate that the college wage premium lessens the immediacy of pay for highly educated Americans, allowing other concerns, like flexibility or altruism, to emerge.

Advancement and compensation affect job satisfaction most for fathers. Fifty-three percent of workers consider high pay an essential factor in job choice. Men, on average, are 7 percentage points more likely than women to cite pay as “one of the most important factors.” Fathers were 13% more likely than mothers to view compensation this way.

Overall, our findings indicate that college-educated workers increasingly benefit from workplaces that invest in their development and seek such arrangements when job hunting. As employers and employees navigate the ever-evolving landscape of work, flexibility remains critically important to the thriving college-educated American worker in an increasingly knowledge-driven economy.

Yet such investments in workers should not be limited to those with four-year degrees. Making employees and job seekers aware of local community college partnerships, apprenticeship programs, local workforce development systems and company-funded training opportunities could supplement lack of investment in the workplace and lead to more flexible and higher-paying work. Incentivizing training and reskilling at the local level also gives employers in high-demand industries access to broader labor pools. Helping to close the growing socioeconomic gap between college- and non-college-educated workers represents a win for both groups, and an even bigger win for American society.