New Research: Outcomes of USHE Graduates Before, During, and After the COVID-19 Pandemic Recession

Connor Hill, Researcher
March 14, 2024

Empty chairs on a large athletic field, each placed six feet apart
Photo by Forest Simon on UnSplash

This analysis is predominantly concerned with college graduates and the differences in their median wages before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic recession in March and April 2020. Utilizing data from Utah’s Department of Workforce Services (DWS) and the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), this study reports the median quarterly wages and employment rates in Utah’s workforce for 2012 college graduates from the first quarter of 2013 (2013Q1) through the last quarter of 2021 (2021Q4). To analyze the impacts of the pandemic recession, we compared workforce outcomes from each quarter in 2019 to the corresponding quarter in 2020 and 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic recession's impact on college graduates has not been analyzed to the same extent as its impacts on people without a college education. Prior rsearch has focused on individuals whose highest educational attainment was a high school diploma or less, due to the disproportionate impact the 2020 recession had on them. Studies that compared the economic shock of the coronavirus by educational attainment have found that individuals with a high school education or less were more severely impacted than those with college degrees (Adams-Prassl et al., 2020; Cortes and Forsythe, 2023). All things considered, developing a deeper understanding of how postsecondary graduates were impacted is necessary. The 2020 recession was unconventional for a variety of reasons, and research into individuals with higher educational attainment may allow us to better prepare for future recessions, even those not caused by a global pandemic.

To compare the workforce outcomes in question, we analyzed USHE graduates in two ways. First, we examined the differences in employment and median quarterly wages for each area of study pursued regardless of the type of postsecondary award received. Second, we considered the award type received when comparing graduates' majors; award types included in this analysis are postsecondary certificates and associate, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees. While the main body of the report focuses on the five most popular areas of study - Health Professions, Business, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Education, and Social Sciences – all programs underwent the same analyses.

The pandemic recession had differential impacts across majors. Potential explanations are the environment individuals worked in and the award type received by graduates. Employees that worked in close contact with other individuals may have lost their jobs due to social distancing requirements implemented at the beginning of the pandemic. In regard to the award type received, other reports have found that individuals with bachelor’s degrees or higher had smaller declines in their employment rates, suggesting greater ability to continue in their jobs remotely (Mongey et al., 2020; Montenovo et al., 2021).

Bachelor’s degree earners had larger changes in wages during the pandemic recession than graduates of certificate programs or associate or graduate degrees. Bachelor’s degree recipients from education programs had the greatest number of quarters showing significantly different median wages when compared to the previous year, with all employed individuals increasing median incomes by $600-$1,400, and employees who were strongly attached to the workforce (i.e. individuals earning at least $3,770 in all four quarters of a given annum) increasing median incomes by $600-$1,700 (see Figure 1). Of the five most popular programs, health program graduates had the second highest number of quarters with significantly different wages from the prior year, increasing between $1,050 and $2,175 for all employed individuals and between $1,100 and $1,570 for strongly attached workers. All wage changes discussed here were statistically significant.

Figure 1: Median quarterly wages for 2012 USHE graduates that received bachelor's
degrees from the most popular areas of study, 2013Q1-2021Q4

The findings from this study suggest that USHE graduates from 2012 were largely unimpacted by the recession in 2020 in terms of employment and wages received. While some areas of study experienced a decline in their employment rates throughout the pandemic recession and recovery, most groups did not experience a change in their quarterly wages. In fact, of the programs that had their wages change, most had an increase in their incomes.

For more information regarding this research, visit the interactive data narrative and access the full report.