Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

College Degree Is No Guarantee You'll Leave Ranks of Unemployed Quickly

College isn't preventing Americans from becoming long-term unemployed

Having a college education is a clear plus in the American job market. High-school drop-outs last year battled an unemployment rate almost three times higher than that for those with at least a bachelor's degree. 

Yet once you're out of work, being better educated barely seems to improve your chances of finding a new job within half a year, a recent analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows. Of those ages 25 or older with at least a bachelor's degree who were jobless last year, 37.7 percent were out of work 27 weeks or longer. That compares with 38.3 percent for those who didn't finish high school.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

"I had anticipated there might be differences by education," said Karen Kosanovich, an economist in the Division of Labor Force Statistics at the BLS. 

The pattern also seems fairly consistent.  In 2007 -- the 18-month recession started in December that year -- 21 percent of the jobless with college degrees were unemployed long-term, compared with 20.5 percent who hadn't completed high school.

"It was surprising," said Eleni Theodossiou Sherman, co-author of the report with Kosanovich and also a BLS economist. "There's very little variance."

One reason college-educated workers may enter the ranks of the long-term unemployed is a mismatch between their degree and the demands of the labor market, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington.

"These are people with wrong degrees in the wrong fields in the wrong place and the wrong time," he said. Those majoring in humanities, psychology and the arts have a more difficult time landing a job than those in science, technology, engineering, business and health-care fields.

Other forces contribute to the pattern, he said. As the share of college-educated workers in the labor force increases, there are bound to be more who are unemployed. They also tend to look for jobs with higher wages. "It takes them longer to find the job they want," he said.

Those whose last positions were in sales and office occupations, management, professional and related fields were more likely to be long-term unemployed than those in services, natural resources, construction and maintenance, the BLS data show. 

That's not to say don't go to college. High-school dropouts are far more likely to become unemployed in the first place, compared with those who completed higher levels of education. "The burden of unemployment is much more serious" for those with little education, said Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. 

Other insights: Men were slightly more likely to be jobless long-term than women in 2014 and greater shares of unemployed blacks and Asians looked for work 27 weeks or longer, 39.6 percent and 37.7 percent respectively, compared with 31.5 percent for whites. Hispanics were least likely to be unemployed long-term at 29.9 percent. Older workers were more likely to be unemployed long-term than younger ones.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues have focused on long-term unemployment as a key element in determining when to raise interest rates. "The fight against unemployment during the recent recovery has been mainly one of bringing down the long-term unemployment rate," a Fed research paper said last year.

There has been progress. In the last quarter of 2014, 31.6 percent of the unemployed, or 2.8 million workers, were jobless for 27 weeks or longer. That's down from 45.1 percent or a record 6.7 million, in the second quarter of 2010.