​A new tipping point for the American workforce

The American workforce has reached a historic tipping point, with college-educated workers now representing a larger share of the workforce than those with only high school diplomas.

Workers with a college education or higher now represent 36 percent of the labor force, compared with 34 percent for those with only a high school diploma or less, according to a new study from Georgetown University. The remaining 30 percent of the workforce is comprised of workers with more than a high school education but less than a bachelor's degree.

The shift points to the labor dynamics emerging in the post-recession years, when the majority of newly created jobs have gone to workers with at least some education beyond high school. College graduates benefited the most during the recovery, accounting for almost three-quarters of the 11.6 million jobs created after the recession, the study found. The tipping point may be exacerbating the growing divide between America's haves and have-nots, given that college-educated workers are finding jobs with solid pay, pushing the less educated into lower-paying, low-skilled jobs.

"The harsh truth is the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and lead author of the report, in an interview. Jobs for high school graduates "went away and it doesn't look like they are coming back."

During the recovery, Americans with graduate degrees gained 3.8 million jobs, while those with bachelor's degrees gained 4.6 million jobs. About 3 million jobs were added for those with associate's degrees or some college education, while only 80,000 jobs were created for people with high school diplomas or less.

Given the escalating cost of college, some students and their parents are increasingly questioning whether it's worth going into debt for a postsecondary degree. Yet without those postsecondary credentials, workers may find fewer pathways to economic stability, given that many of the occupations that once provided a middle-class life for high-school graduates are opting to hire employees with college degrees.

"The two industries that traditionally hired large numbers of workers without a college degree -- construction and manufacturing -- are shifting toward workers with more education than a high school diploma," the report noted. "Most telling is the manufacturing sector: of the 1.7 million jobs that have been gained since the onset of the recovery, only 214,000 (or 12 percent) have gone to workers with a high school diploma or less."

Some industries that had favored college-educated workers before the recession deepened that reliance in the recovery, the report found. Fields including information services and financial services added jobs for college grads after the recession, while shrinking the number of employment opportunities for those with high school degrees.

Of course, the economy is not only rewarding college grads with employment opportunities, but higher income. Most of what the report calls "the good jobs" -- those that pay more than $53,000 a year for full-time workers and provide benefits -- went to Americans with college degrees.

Perhaps the recovery should be called "the yuppie years," given that the post-recession period has lifted the fortunes of those who are white and college-educated. The upper middle class -- or those households making between $100,000 to $350,000 in annual income -- has swelled to almost 30 percent of the country by 2014, more than double its share in 1979, the Urban Institute found earlier this month. Six out of 10 of Americans who are either upper middle class or rich now have bachelor's or graduate degrees, compared with just three out of 10 in 1979.

While all of that makes the case for biting the bullet and taking on debt or making sacrifices to receive a college degree, the bottom line may be that not all college educations deliver the same payoff.

Receiving a degree in the arts, humanities and education at some institutions may leave some college grads with a negative return on investment over two decades, meaning that those grads were unable to recoup the cost of college even after 20 years of income, PayScale found in a 2015 study. The colleges with the best ROI are those in the Ivy League or that focus on so-called STEM topics, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, such as MIT or Harvey Mudd College.