Want to make America great? Make college available and affordable to more Americans. The effect of this one act would ripple throughout the nation in many positive ways.
Is college for everyone? No. Are today’s college graduates having more problems finding jobs in their fields than ever before? Yes. But, are most college graduates doing significantly better economically than most high school graduates? No comparison.
Perhaps the most comprehensive research on the gap between college and high school graduates was completed by Danielle Kutzleben, reporting for U.S. News and World Report in 2014 and Paul Taylor, executive vice president of special projects for Pew Research Center in a 2014 report titled, “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.” Kutzleben reported that “the value of a college degree is greater than it has been in nearly half a century.” Taylor found that “the earnings gap between millennials with bachelor’s degrees and those with just a high school diploma is wider than it was for prior generations.”
Taylor found that in 1965, the income gap between high school and college graduates was $7,499. The gap grew to $17,500 by 2014 in constant dollars. Taylor emphasized that, “The driver of that widening is not so much that today’s college graduates are doing better than yesterday’s college graduates; it’s that today’s high school-only graduates are doing worse than yesterday’s high school-only graduates. The real story is the collapse in economic opportunity for people who do not continue their education beyond high school.”
Taylor also found that among 25- to 32-year-olds with a college degree, the jobless rate as of March 2013 was 3.8 percent. In comparison, the unemployment rate was 8.1 percent for those with a two-year degree or some college, and 12.2 percent for those with only a high school diploma. These same stark differences were also documented in Labor Department statistics during the peak of the Great Recession when the unemployment rate hit 10 percent.
Studies since have shown the gap increasing and the economic well-being of high school students decreasing. The Economic Policy Institute found that college graduates, on average, earned 56 percent more than high school graduates in 2015. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the Institute found that most of the new jobs and pay gains have gone to college graduates with an overall 3 percent decline in income for workers with only a high school degree. Since the recession, the number of employed college grads has risen 21 percent, while the number of employed people with only a high school degree has dropped nearly 8 percent.
According to Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “The post-Great Recession economy has divided the country along a fault line demarcated by college education. But as the disparity widens, it is doing so in ways that go beyond income, from homeownership to marriage to retirement.”
Sara Brown and Karin Fischer, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education in January, looked at how the lack of education opportunities in small towns in Missouri’s Dunklin County correlated with the lack of employment opportunities, higher suicide rates, drug overdose rates, and the overall physical health of its people. In 2015, about 12.6 percent of the population 25 and older in Dunklin County had a bachelor’s degree compared with about 31 percent for the United States overall. As a result, median household income in Dunklin County was $31,077 compared to $53,889 nationally, and life expectancy was 72 years compared to about 79 nationally.
Andrew Kelly, an expert on higher education at the American Enterprise Institute, found that while Americans with some college education “earn more, vote more, are healthier, and are more likely to marry,” among other social benefits, only “40 percent of Americans have finished an associate’s degree or above.” Kelly also found that for low-income families, “under 10 percent had earned a four-year degree by age 25.” Why? Kelly found that 54 percent of Americans noted that “it costs too much” as their reason for not attending college.
College is not for everyone; millions of Americans do well economically and socially without attending college. Also, additional education after high school could mean a technical school to learn plumbing or electrical skills. However, as the economic gap between college and high school graduates increases, we need to find a way to help those who are not extending their education beyond high school because “it costs too much.” For those who want to extend their education beyond high school, it would be a wise investment as a nation to make that possible.