Since the Great Recession ended in 2009, college-educated workers have captured most of the new jobs and enjoyed pay gains. Non-college grads, by contrast, have faced dwindling job opportunities and an overall 3 percent decline in income, EPI's data shows.
"The post-Great Recession economy has divided the country along a fault line demarcated by college education," Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, said in a report last year.
College grads have long enjoyed economic advantages over Americans with less education. But as the disparity widens, it is doing so in ways that go beyond income, from homeownership to marriage to retirement. Education has become a dividing line that affects how Americans vote, the likelihood that they will own a home and their geographic mobility.
The dominance of college graduates in the economy is, if anything, accelerating. Last year, for the first time, a larger proportion of workers were college grads (36 percent) than high school-only grads (34 percent), Carnevale's research found. The number of employed college grads has risen 21 percent since the recession began in December 2007, while the number of employed people with only a high school degree has dropped nearly 8 percent.
Behind the trend is a greater demand for educated workers, and the retirement of older Americans, who are more likely to be high school-only graduates.
The split is especially stark among white men. For middle-age white men with only high school degrees — the core of President-elect Donald Trump's support — inflation-adjusted income fell 9 percent from 1996 through 2014, according to Sentier Research, an analytics firm. By contrast, income for white men in the same age bracket who are college graduates jumped 23 percent.
Long after the recession ended, many young college graduates struggled to find well-paying jobs in a slowly recovering economy, and stories about graduates working as coffee shop baristas abounded. But data collected by the New York Federal Reserve suggests that trend has faded as the economy has improved.
Yet few experts think the solution is simply to send more students to four-year colleges. Many young people either don't want to spend more years in school or aren't prepared to do so. Already, four in every 10 college students drop out before graduating — often with debt loads they will struggle to repay without a degree.
Rather, labor economists say, many high school grads would benefit from a more comprehensive approach to obtaining skills, especially involving technology, that are increasingly in demand.
"If the only path you offer them is a traditional college path, they're not going to be successful," says Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University.
Helping lift high school graduates' skill levels is critical, given the many ways they are lagging behind their college-educated peers:
— They're less likely to have a job. Just two-thirds of high school-only grads ages 25 through 64 were employed in 2015, down sharply from 73 percent in 2007. For college graduates in the same age group, employment dipped only slightly from 84 percent to 83 percent.
— They're less likely to be married. In 2008, marriage rates for college-educated 30-year olds surpassed those of high-school-only grads for the first time. And women with college diplomas enjoy an 8-in-10 chance of their first marriage lasting 20 years, according to the Center for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics. That's double the odds for women with just high school degrees.
— High school-only grads are less likely to own homes. Sixty-four percent are current homeowners, down from 70 percent in 2000. By contrast, three-quarters of bachelor's degree holders are homeowners, down slightly from 77 percent in 2000, according to real estate data firm Zillow.
— A college-educated worker is now more likely to belong to a labor union than a high-school-only worker is, according to Pew Research Center. Unions have played a key role in raising pay for members. Yet just 6 percent of workers with only a high school degree now belong to one. Public employee unions, which often represent teachers and others with college educations, have generally maintained staying power while large industrial unions have deteriorated.