Education: The key to real opportunity—during the pandemic and beyond
Research and Evaluation

Education: The key to real opportunity—during the pandemic and beyond

A technician measures a machined piece of round brass with calipers.
iStock / AnnaStills

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed any number of inequities in American life, but probably none more glaring than the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. A key determination between the two is education beyond high school.

This is abundantly clear in Gallup’s just-released 2020 Great Jobs Survey. Among other things, the survey found that during the pandemic, individuals with education beyond high school were much more likely to be in high-quality jobs earning a steady income. Unlike their peers without post-high school education, they also were more likely to have stable and predictable hours, the power to change things about their jobs, a safe work environment, job security, and a sense of purpose and dignity in their work.

No one would be shocked to know that more education means higher income. But what we see from these numbers is that education also means better jobs and more job satisfaction. And by education, I do not necessarily mean a four-year degree. An associate degree, certificate, or industry-recognized certification can often be the answer.

Any high-quality credential can lead to a better, more secure job. The data show that workers with a certificate are less likely to be laid off and less likely to be in a bad job than those with only a high school education.

In addition, the study found that:

  • 42 percent of workers with only a high school education faced a permanent or temporary layoff during the pandemic, while only 20 percent of those with a four-year college degree did.
  • Only 16 percent of workers with a high school diploma or less were able to work remotely during the pandemic compared to 42 percent with a bachelor’s degree and 51 percent with a graduate degree.

Those with less education have more frequently been left unemployed—scrambling to reskill or upskill for whatever comes next. Meanwhile, those who are better educated can sit home or in their offices and continue to work and be healthier, more secure, and safer.

And however pronounced the inequities have been based on education level, they’ve been far worse for people of color. Since COVID hit, Black and Hispanic workers have been more likely to lose their jobs and become unable to afford food or shelter. On the other hand, white and wealthier people are more likely to have been able to work from home, lowering their risk of exposure to the virus. Their pay has been more stable, and most have been able to afford basic necessities.

The findings demonstrate that the pandemic has widened the growing gap between the haves (those who are white, with more education, and with higher incomes) and the have-nots (often Black and Hispanic individuals and those with no education beyond high school). This rising level of inequality has decreased social mobility, threatening the safety, security, and health of the nation.

This report clearly demonstrates that one key to increasing equity and helping millions more Americans have good jobs is education beyond high school. We must ensure that all Americans—regardless of race, geography, or age—have access to, a pathway through, and support to complete a credential beyond high school.

As tens of millions of Americans struggle to find or keep jobs lost during the pandemic, we all must work together to help more workers train and learn new skills, and to earn the high-quality credentials that the economy demands.

We must make this a priority—especially for people of color—so they have the opportunity for a good job and a good life and can weather the next pandemic and/or recession.


Courtney Brown, Ph.D, is vice president of impact and planning for Lumina Foundation.

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