How Is a Degree Likely to Shape Your Work Life?

by Jennifer Robison, Contributing Editor

A million dollars is a great deal of money. And that's about how much more a college graduate will earn than a high school graduate over the course of a career, according to the latest Census Bureau statistics. But money, as they say, isn't everything. Some people shudder at the thought of spending their working lives indoors, behind a desk, inside a suit. Working conditions are a matter of taste -- just ask one of the growing number of Americans who have made mid-life career changes because they didn't enjoy what they were doing. But what can survey statistics tell us about how a single factor -- the possession of a college degree -- is likely to influence the nature of one's work?

An August 2002 Gallup Poll* surveyed American employees on a variety of work issues. The results indicate big differences in the work conditions -- environment, hours, pay type and title -- between people who graduated from college (including those with postgraduate work), and those who didn't (including people who attended but did not graduate from college).


Telling dichotomies between high school and college graduates are found in their job types. Forty percent of employed college graduates work in a "professional specialty," as do only 3% of employed high school graduates with no college education. Conversely, 15% of employed high school graduates are in "service" jobs, compared to only 5% of employed college graduates, and 24% of high school graduates with no college education are "operators, fabricators, and laborers," compared with less than 1% of college graduates. Twenty-six percent of employed college graduates are in managerial or executive positions, compared with 14% of employed adults with only a high school education.


Fifty-eight percent of employed college graduates always or usually work in an office, nearly double the percentage of employed adults with just a high school education (30%). In fact, a plurality of employed adults without any college education (43%) say they never work in an office setting.

How Many?

Considering the million-dollar Census Bureau statistic, it seems reasonable to expect that those with no college education would be more likely to work extra hours or take more than one job to supplement their incomes. In fact, the reverse is true. High school and college graduates are about equally likely to have part-time jobs -- 11% of employed college graduates and 13% of employed adults with a high school education or less work fewer than 35 hours a week. But of the two camps, those who have completed college are more likely to spend long hours at work. Fifty-one percent work 45 hours or more a week, as do 30% of employed high school graduates. In addition, 16% of employed college graduates work two or more jobs, as do 10% of employed high school graduates.

Show Me the Money

Employed high school graduates are more than twice as likely as employed college graduates to earn an hourly wage. Sixty-eight percent of employed high school grads are paid on an hourly basis, compared with only 23% of employed college degree holders. In contrast, 65% of working college graduates earn a salary, as do only 25% of workers whose formal education ended with high school. This may help to explain the difference in hours worked per week between the two groups. The whistle doesn't blow at five o'clock for salaried workers, which may encourage them to stay at the office a little longer.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 584 adults, aged 18 and older, employed full or part time, conducted Aug. 5-8, 2002. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4%.

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