For the first time in history, the number of jobless workers age 25 and up who have attended some college now exceeds the ranks of those who settled for a high school diploma or less.
Out of 9 million unemployed in April, 4.7 million had gone to college or graduated and 4.3 million had not, seasonally adjusted Labor Department data show.
That's a swing of more than 2 million since the start of 1992, early in another jobless recovery, when 4.1 million who hadn't gone to college were jobless vs. 2.3 million jobless who had gone.
Mostly, this dramatic shift reflects broad demographic forces. A greater share of the population has attended college, at least for a time. Meanwhile, older Americans who were less likely to pursue higher education are exiting the work force.
In 2011, 57% of those 25 and up had attended some college vs. 43% in 1992. Those without a high school diploma fell from 21% to 12% over that span.
But along with the increasing prevalence of college attendance has come a growing number of dropouts, who have left school burdened by student loan debt but without much to kick-start their careers.
Unemployment for those 25 and up with some college but no degree was 8% in April compared to 6.6% for the age group, measured on a more volatile seasonally unadjusted basis. In the same month, the jobless rate was 7.7% for 25-and-up high school grads with no college and 6.2% for those with a two-year college degree.
For college grads, including those with advanced degrees, the jobless rate was 4%, seasonally adjusted.
For those age 16 to 24, who also factor into the overall 8.1% jobless rate, the ranks of the unemployed no longer in school are much lower among those with some college than without. Partly, that is an issue of timing, as well as maturity, tied to the early age of high school completion.
However, in both cases, the reality is dismal among the young adults no longer in school:
For those in the labor force — either with a job or in active pursuit of one — 57% of high-school grads with no college (2.9 million of 5.1 million) have found a full-time job.
For labor force members who have attended — and left — college or earned an associate degree, a depressing 64% (2.2 million of 3.5 million) have gained full-time employment.
Among everyone up to age 24 who has left college or earned a two-year degree — including those not actively searching — the full-time employment-to-population ratio has plummeted from 69% in 2000 to 62% in 2003 to 54%.
This has occurred even as student lending and enrollment at community colleges has soared, elevating the student loan crisis to the center of political debate and a rallying cry for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Among students who started a four-year college in 2003 but hadn't graduated six years later, 14% had student-loan debt of $28,000, according to the College Board's Trends in Student Aid 2011.
Financial stress and worry about escalating debt amid weak economic prospects seems to be a factor in elevated dropout rates.
Even many recent college graduates have struggled to find work requiring a bachelor's degree.