Arnold Kling  

College and Inequality

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Theda Skocpol and Suzanne Mettler write (free but awkward registration required),


in 1970, 6.2 percent of the U.S. population in the bottom income quartile had completed a baccalaureate degree by age 24-and that percentage actually declined slightly, to 6 percent, by the year 2000. Lower-middle-income young people from the second (to the bottom) income quartile improved their college completion rates only slightly from 1970 to 2000, from 10.9 percent to 12.7 percent. But note the contrasting trajectories for young people in the upper half of the income distribution. For those in the third quartile-solidly middle-class families-completion percentages rose markedly, from 14.9 percent in 1970 to 26.8 percent in 2000. And for the most privileged young people, those from upper-middle-class and upper-class families in the top quarter of the income distribution, college completion rates rose from 40.2 percent in 1970 to 51.3 percent in 2000. Compared to the mid-twentieth century, higher education is now increasingly exacerbating socioeconomic inequality in the United States.

Of course, this all could reflect assortive mating. Today's upper-income children could be the offspring of two parents who both went to college, while the lower-income children could be the offspring of two parents who did not. Instead of thinking along these lines, the authors favor a big Federal program of college financial aid. The article pretty much assumes that everyone could benefit from college, and the only reason some people don't go is that they cannot afford it.

Thanks to Timothy Taylor's "Recommendations for Further Reading" column in the Journal of Economic Perspectives for the pointer.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
hutch writes:

so, the way i understand it (as an amateur) is that people see college tuition rising and get upset. they also see people who have less college than another as having lower incomes and encourage them (many of whom are subsidized in some way) to go to college. aren't these related? by subsidizing the costs to eliminate the inequality, aren't they, in part at least, leading to the higher costs? of course, there are other reasons why demand is going up relative to 50 yrs ago. and i'm sure there are some other reasons why tuition costs are going up as well. but am i right that the subsidization and rising tuition are related or am i missing something?

Tom S. writes:

There is some evidence that those who stand to benefit the most are less likely to enroll. See Jennie Brand and Yu Xie

George writes:

Did they control for sex? Because I'm willing to bet a much higher proportion of women (in all quartiles) go to college now than in 1970.

Also, I'm kind of shocked that only about half the kids in the top quartile complete college by 24 — I would have guessed a number over 80%. Are rich kids frying their brains on drugs more than they did in the 80s?

Mark writes:

" For those in the third quartile-solidly middle-class families-completion percentages rose markedly, from 14.9 percent in 1970 to 26.8 percent in 2000. "

The middle of that third quartile would be the median worker.

If you look at the growth in median wages over that time period - especially those for men - and compare that to GDP growth , you would understand why so many of us are wondering if higher education was worth the effort.

Incentives matter for the masses , too , something rightwingery can't seem to grasp.

They'll say : "Well , you know , 10% of the people do 90% of the work , so ..." .

Looking at the current situation and outlook , I suggest they keep ALL of the money.

They can keep ALL the work , as well.

Enjoy!

Steve Sailer writes:

Immigration has had a huge effect on this change since 1970. We've let a large number of high-earning people from pro-education cultures and we've let in a huge number of low-earning people from cultures that are indifferent to education.

floccina writes:

It is actually easy to get more college grads, just make school easier, more enjoyable and cheaper. I would rather discuss what people need to know to live better lives and what is the most efficient way to get that to them. It is my belief that knowledge and skills can help everyone but the benefits of diplomas as mostly positional.

JKB writes:

Of course, those from the lower quartiles are more likely to be victims of public education and therefore less prepared, these days, for college. As well as less enamored with education by their experience.

All is not lost for the lower quartiles however, the trades are opening up after being stuffed by early babyboomers in the 1970s and early '80s, via population and the shutdown of manufacturing. There is in fact a shortage of skilled trade workers today in such fields as plumbing and HVAC. The housing downturn will smooth this a bit but a twenty-something these days has a better chance of a decent living in the trades than one in the eighties or even nineties.

Dave writes:

The link is dead.

I can't interpret the quote by itself. Does "from the Xth quartile" mean now, or during the person's childhood? If now, the simplest explanation is increasing returns to education, which is old news.

"Assortive mating" is always a highly questionable hypothesis. I'm not aware of any serious body of evidence that measures and tracks it. Also, assortive mating is not at all guaranteed to change the distribution of intelligence or anything else over time, and AFAICT the variance of intelligence hasn't changed much.

[I fixed the link. Thanks for pointing it out.--Econlib Ed.]

GU writes:
Also, I'm kind of shocked that only about half the kids in the top quartile complete college by 24 — I would have guessed a number over 80%. Are rich kids frying their brains on drugs more than they did in the 80s?

The top quartile in 2000 began at only ~$80k. Quartiles are really clunky for this type of research. 80k could be a construction worker, police officer, two low level office workers (a married couple), etc. These households would be much different from those headed by the $250k lawyer/doctor, or the $5M CEO.

In brief, I don't find it so surprising that only half of students from the upper quartile graduate college.

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