Working hard … yet hardly getting ahead.

Many full-time workers in the 25-35 age group with college training don’t need reminding that they’re struggling to balance paying for student loans while at the same time attempting to have decent housing and handling their day-to-day expenses.

I’m not in that age group, but our two children are – and I can see from their friends and work colleagues just how much of a challenge it is for many of them to balance these competing necessities.

One way to deal with the challenge is to settle for the sardine-like living arrangements one encounters in quite a few urban areas, with anywhere from three to six people residing in the same (medium-sized) apartment or (small) house.

Somehow, things just didn’t see so difficult for me “back in the day.” Of course, the entirety of my student loans following college amounted to a monthly payment of $31.28, with seven years to pay it off.

First apartment — a $185 per month rental.

And my first apartment – a one-bedroom flat in an elegant 1920’s building, complete with a beautiful lobby and old-fashioned glam elevator, cost me a mere $185 per month.

Not only that, it was only a five-minute bus ride to my downtown banking job.

Now, a newly released analysis published by the American Consumer’s Newsletter helps quantify the different reality for today’s younger workers.

What the data show is that a college degree does continue to provide higher earnings for younger workers compared to those without one.

But … it also reveals that adjusted for inflation, their earnings are lower than their college-educated counterparts in the past.

According to a National Center for Education Statistics analysis as published by the AC Newsletter, here’s a summary of the median earnings differences for male full-time workers in the 25-34 age cohort, comparing 2016 to the year 2000 in inflation-adjusted dollars:

  • Master’s or higher degree: $71,640 … down 6.4% from 2000
  • Bachelor’s degree: $56,960 … down 8.8%
  • Associate’s degree: $43,000 … down 11.8%
  • Some college, but no degree: $37,980 … down 14.3%
  • High school degree: $34,750 … down 13.6%
  • High school dropout: $28,560 … up 2.8%

Thus, among full-time male workers across all education levels, only high school dropouts have experienced a real increase in earnings between 2000 and 2016.

Among female workers, the trends are a little better, but still hardly impressive – and they also start from lower 2000 income levels to begin with:

  • Master’s or higher degree: $57,690 … down 0.5% from 2000
  • Bachelor’s degree: $44,990 … down 7.5%
  • Associate’s degree: $31,870 … down 12.0%
  • Some college, but no degree: $29,980 … down 13.8%
  • High school degree: $28,000 … down 7.2%
  • High school dropout: $21,900 … up 5.0%

What’s even more challenging for workers carrying student loan debt is that those debt levels are higher than ever – often substantially so.

According to a Brookings Institution comparative study, fewer than 5% of students leaving school in 2000 carried more than $50,000 in student loan debt. In inflation-adjusted terms, by 2014, that percentage had risen to ~17%.

Looked at another way, ~40% of borrowers are carrying student loan debt balances exceeding $25,000. It doesn’t take a finance whiz to figure out how big of a hit that is out of a worker’s paycheck.

It makes the some of today’s realities: people living at home longer following college; having frat- or sorority-like living arrangements; putting off plans to purchase a home, or even putting off marriage plans – all the more understandable.

And I’m not exactly sure what the remedy is, either. When it comes to overburdened education debt, it isn’t as if people can go back and rewrite the script very easily.

College aspirations: Talk versus action.

College participation ratesPollsters like to point out that people will sometimes voice an opinion about an activity, a product or a political candidate — but what they say doesn’t match the reality.

If that’s the case, it makes the recent revelation that ~42% of ~500 Austrians surveyed in a Market Institut poll believe that Adolf Hitler’s rule “wasn’t all bad” even more scary than it sounds at first blush.

Bringing things back closer to home, a report issued in August 2012 by the National Center for Education Statistics states that ~96% of female high school seniors want to go to college … and that among male seniors, it’s only a tad lower at ~90%.

But here’s the actual reality: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that fewer than 60% of 18-24 year olds are actually enrolled in college or have earned their higher education degree.

Enrolling in college doesn’t necessarily mean graduating, either. Only one-third of 25-34 year olds held a college degree as of 2011 (36% of women and 28% of men).

Why aren’t kids going to college even though the vast majority of high school seniors say they want to attend? There are the predictable reasons:

  • Can’t afford college tuition
  • Entered the workplace instead
  • Didn’t graduate from high school (~16% of 18-24 year olds haven’t actually earned their high school diplomas)

But perhaps we’re beginning to see bit of a shift in thinking, too.

Most parents – and many school systems as well – hold up college prep as the primary objective of high school curricula and learning-related activities. But some may be looking at the less-than-lucrative job prospects of graduating college seniors and realizing that the traditional four-year college course of study isn’t the clear ticket to a gainful career that it once was.

Online learning, distance learning, technical training and hands-on mentoring are other post secondary education options that may looking more viable to some — particularly males.

In fact, fewer than 50% of males are enrolling in four-year educational institutions following high school, while for females, it’s closer to 75%. 

It’ll be interesting to see how all of this plays out over the coming decade.  Perhaps then we’ll have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to see if these trends were a potent of bad things society … or not.