The Breakdown: Education Is More Necessary Than Ever

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The Breakdown
The Breakdown: The Young Aren’t Getting Enough Education

This has been repeated so often that it would hardly seem necessary now: the greatest gains in income over the last 30 years have been by those who’ve got more than a high school education and those without high school educations have actually lost ground. Consider the chart above. It should come as a surprise to nobody that people with college degrees or post-graduate degrees on average make more than those with high school diplomas only.

However, the thing to look at is the slopes of those lines. The disparity is getting larger rather than than staying the same. Unfortunately, young people, particularly young men, aren’t seeking college or advanced degrees in sufficient numbers.

I do feel the need to register some skepticism about the overall significance of post-graduate education. I think that the very high earnings that can be attributed to some of those with post-graduate degrees notably physicians and MBAs or even the extremely high earnings of a small subset within those obtaining post-graduate degrees, e.g. attorneys, skews the entire result.

I don’t believe that alters the basic conclusion: if you expect to get ahead, you’ll need a college degree or better.

Next post: Baby Boomers Have Higher Incomes

10 comments… add one
  • Maxwell James Link

    I’ll add to your skepticism, in that I don’t think cause and effect are separable here. IIRC, the majority of college students still come from families with higher education in their background, and all the greater wealth and connections that tends to go with that.

  • Maxwell James Link

    That said, looking again at the chart – the extent of the separation is rather breathtaking. I’m deeply concerned that we’ve been developing an insider/outsider economy economy in this country for the last few decades, and that graph does a lot to confirm my fears.

  • steve Link

    Need ROI figures to go with this just to be complete.


  • Michael Reynolds Link

    It’s not education. In a world where just about anyone can find the money to attend college education is just a proxy for intelligence.

    We have fewer and fewer slots for people of average to below average intelligence or middling talent. Those jobs can be off-shored or automated. The low-end jobs that can’t be off-shored or automated yet — food service, low end health workers, maintenance workers — soon will be automated.

    This is a very big, very long-term problem. Think Rome but with the slaves all replaced by machines. The smart and the talented do better than ever before, and the average Joe does worse. I don’t see that changing.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Michael, that’s a lot to read into that graph.

    If, for example, the supply of people with college degrees is increasing, then employers will find more opportunities to select college graduates over non-college graduates. I don’t know that people are getting smarter, getting better educated, or are more productive in their jobs.

    For example, around 20 years ago, state police departments began requiring a college education. Did crooks become smarter? Did radar guns become too complicated without an English degree? Are younger police officers that much better than their older, high school drop-out superiors?

    I think the supply of college graduates increased enough that employers in certain areas of the economy (governments and it’s hand-maidens) began using a bachelor’s degree as a screening requirement. If so, the difference has less to do with intelligence, but structures that exclude high school graduates from jobs they could perform well if given the opportunity.

  • Michael Reynolds Link


    Actually a cop has a much more complex job today. Police cruisers are almost all equipped with compter terminals. Record keeping is computerized. The legal knowledge required is greater. The judgment employed requires more subtlety.

    Cops compare I think in some ways to the military where the number of guys humping .50’s is smaller than it used to be. Soldiers, cops, firemen, EMT’s, nurses, and so on are required to train more and learn more. That raises the intelligence bar.

    The same applies through any number of trades. An electrician today simply has to know more than an electrician in decades past. Same with an HVAC guy or a copier repairman or a car mechanic.

    So actually a lot of jobs where an 80 IQ might have sufficed 30 years ago now require a bit more. Life itself is more complex. And these jobs that could have gone to low or low-average IQ people now have to go to average or slightly above average people.

    If I’m hiring cops or electricians or firemen what’s my evidence that the prospective trainee can handle the training? Well, college is one. I see a guy who has 2 years of community college it’s a good bet that he’s not too slow. I see a guy who dropped out of high school, I form a different opinion of his intelligence.

    So, if I’m hiring cops, and I want to avoid pitfalls in terms of fair hiring practices, I slap on a requirement for a degree. That way I don’t waste a lot of time with guys who won’t be able to study the necessary law, learn the computer systems, and grasp the subtleties we require police officers to grasp.

  • Michael Reynolds Link

    By the way, I should mention that I am a high school drop-out. Although I went on to drop out of community college and two universities.

  • I do agree with you, considering that now a days a lot of people are sponsoring students who cant afford to pay and a lot of governments provide loans for higher / further education, yet the lack of students in the higher education bracket seems to come from the lack of IQ. There are many education consultants who help not only with the enrolment process but with documentation as well.

  • As you know, Michael, you and I have had somewhat similar life stories, largely living by our wits. To be honest I think it’s a lot harder for a kid to do that nowadays than it was 40 years ago.

  • Michael Reynolds Link

    As you know, Michael, you and I have had somewhat similar life stories

    And that gives me hope. 🙂

    I wonder if it’s harder for kids today. I have two, one with low normal IQ, the other with a 149. One with disadvantaged early years (orphanage) and one who has been pampered from birth. One could be parachuted into the antarctic and somehow have three friends before the end of day. The other has no use for humans. My own little social experiment.

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