Young Adults in RI's Education-to-Career Pipeline

The experience of young adults who have advanced through RI’s public education system and entered the workforce offers insight into the state’s school-to-career pipeline. A previous data story looked at early college outcomes for a group of RI public school students.

Now, with nearly a decade of data, we examine how the educational experience of these students is shaping the start of their careers. This story looks at factors such as educational attainment and field of study to see how they relate to later employment in RI.

The Importance of the Young Adult Workforce

Young Adult Workforce The young adults under study were part of a 2014 DataHUB analysis of the demographics of RI’s young adults, which presented information on employment and social characteristics. Why study this group? For one thing, at 11.4% of the population, young adults are a bigger force in RI than in the rest of New England (9.8%) or in the country as a whole (10.0%). For another, as recent workforce entrants, their experience provides insight into our ability to prepare the next generation to meet emerging job demands.

Studying the education-to-career pathway of young adults can yield important information about workforce patterns that will shape RI’s economy in the years to come. With both the state and students seeking to gain the most from their investment in education, this information may also help guide choices that will align education and training with RI’s projected industry requirements.

The Pipeline: RI Public Education through College and the Workforce

The Math Preparation and Postsecondary Success Data Story examined initial higher education outcomes for a "pipeline" of students from Rhode Island’s public schools. In the current story, we take an in-depth look at the portion of these students who:

  • were originally enrolled in 8th grade in Rhode Island public schools in the 2005-06 school year;
  • progressed through 11th grade in Rhode Island public schools “on time” in the 2008-09 school year; and
  • have since enrolled at URI, RIC, or CCRI – Rhode Island’s public institutions of higher education.1

By now, these students are earning certificates, associate’s degrees, and bachelor's degrees. We'll relate these students’ education attainment and field of study with their place in the state’s employment landscape.

In the charts that follow, graduates are those who have earned a degree or certificate from URI, RIC, or CCRI; current students are those who are enrolled at one of these institutions. Some overlap exists between these groups, as students may have earned a certificate or degree and later enrolled for further studies.

1 About 59% of the group progressing through 11th grade enrolled at URI, RIC, or CCRI by fall 2014. This is consistent with figures from a National Center for Educational Statistics study, which found that 56.3% of high school students in a national cohort enrolled in any of a roughly comparable set of institutions (a four-year public postsecondary institution, a two-year institution, or a less than two-year institution).

The Pipeline’s Current Students: Fields of Study

Of the total cohort of students, 1,815 were enrolled at URI, RIC, or CCRI in the fall term of 2014. The chart shows these students’ field of study. Hover over a bar to see the number of students studying within that field.

The largest group comprises students who are studying general studies and humanities. Several other top fields are more directly related to specific professions, including health professions, business, and education. About 10% of students are studying within a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, or math).

* Data Sources and Notes

Graduates by Latest Degree or Certificate

Of the 5,311 students who have enrolled at URI, RIC, or CCRI, 1,090 (21%) earned a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree within four and a half years. Figures here represent the latest degree earned. For example, certificate earners who went on to earn an associate’s degree are counted only among the latter category. Note that while many bachelor’s degree programs can be completed within 4 years, others (e.g., within nursing or engineering) may have 5-year timetables. In addition, “stopping out” to work or care for a family member is common. We will gain a fuller picture of graduation rates as we continue to follow the educational experience of these students.

Nationally, the graduation rate is 19.5% among public 2-year institutions within 3 years and 33.5% among public 4-year institutions within 4 years, but these figures reflect rates for full-time students only.1 Overall, Rhode Island ranks 22nd for graduation within 4 or 6 years from a public 4-year college but 44th for graduation within 2 or 3 years from a public 2-year college.2

1 Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics.
2 Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, College Completion: Who Graduates from College, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.
* Data Sources and Notes

Industries of Employment

Overall employment figures show that students who attend RI public higher education institutions tend to remain in state for work. Of the 1,090 graduates in our cohort, 762 (70%) are currently working in Rhode Island. The fact that many of these students worked over the course of their studies may go a long way toward explaining why so few graduate within 4 years.

A few highlights from the industry data:

  • Health care and social assistance, the largest industry in the state, also employs a large portion of graduates. Specific occupations within the industry might vary widely between these graduates and the overall workforce.
  • The arts, entertainment, and recreation industry employs more than double the proportion of graduates than the overall workforce.
  • Educational services and finance and insurance are two areas where specialized training may be needed, and figure fairly largely in the overall employment landscape. There may be further opportunity here, as these industries employ proportionally fewer graduates than overall workforce.

    * Data Sources and Notes


Cohort graduates earn considerably less than the state average across industries. This comes as no surprise, since these young adults are most likely starting in entry-level jobs. In addition, wages may reflect part-time work, even among graduates, as certificate or associate’s degree holders may be working toward a bachelor’s degree. The question is whether these young adults are earning a “living wage” that allows them to live on their own, contribute to the local economy, and save for purchases like cars and homes. In most cases the answer is: "No" (the living wage for 1 single adult in Providence county with no children: $22,757 annual income before taxes). The exceptions are few and tend to be the industries that employ fewer people (e.g. manufacturing).

Industries with higher overall average wages but lower wages for these young adults (e.g., health care, information, finance & insurance, professional, scientific & technical services) may tell a very different story in a few years’ time. For these industries in particular, students may have yet to complete further, advanced degrees. In addition, the broad range of occupations represented in each industry—particularly health care, the state’s largest industry—offer the opportunity to advance with experience.

* Data Sources and Notes

The College Wage Boost

college wages graphic

One key question is how postsecondary education affects wage and career prospects. Although this study looks only at very early employment for a small group, we already see a concrete impact. Cohort members who earned certificates or associate’s degrees in time for us to track their place in the workforce 18 months from graduation saw a 63.6% average increase in their total annual earnings. As future data become available, we will be able to examine longer-term wage changes for degree earners, as well as for those who have no or limited postsecondary education.

We will continue to track the effects of further education attainment on the employment and wage story of these young adults as it continues to unfold.

For a look at similar national-level data on the college wage boost, see the National Center for Educational Statistics "Fast Facts" on the Income of Young Adults.

* Data Sources and Notes


What can we learn from school, industry, and wage data for this group of RI students?

Keeping Talent in RI

  • Young adults are staying in RI in large numbers for both college and early work experience.
  • To keep talented workers in state over time, industries need to provide jobs that offer a living wage, while students and schools must align education choices with industry needs.

Challenges and Opportunities for Young Workers

  • The recent graduates under study are more likely than counterparts in the overall workforce to work in traditionally low-wage industries (e.g., retail trade) and less likely to work in key higher-wage industries such as manufacturing or construction.
  • Although industries of employment may change as more of these young adults move into full-time jobs, the prevalence of low-wage industries among this group signals an opportunity to select areas of study that will provide the skills needed to fill future workforce gaps.

Maximizing the Wage Benefits of Higher Education

  • Many students progressing through RI’s public secondary schools enroll in public higher education and thus have at least some college experience.
  • Even just 18 months out, the impact of earning a certificate or degree on the wages of young adults in RI is substantial. To gain the full benefits of higher education, students need to assess their ability to manage the academic, time, and financial demands of college before enrolling.

    Published 12/11/2015.