Why You Should Stay in School, in 1 Chart

High school graduates' inflation-adjusted wages have fallen 1.6% the past 12 years
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It's been a lost decade for American workers, but it's been more lost for some than others. As Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) point out in a new and particularly depressing report, inflation-adjusted wages have been flat for the median American worker since 2000. But it's been worse than that for people who only have a high school degree. Their real wages have fallen 1.6 percent the past 12 years -- and they're still falling now.

RealWageGrowth.png

A few things. The first and most obvious is that, yes, you should stay in school. Now, that doesn't mean you should throw any kind of cost-benefit analysis aside, and pay any price for any school. You want to go someplace that actually graduates its students. That's because, despite the rising cost of it, graduating from college is still just about the best investment you can make.

But what about everyone else? Last year, 33.5 percent of 25 to 29 year olds had at least a bachelor's degree, which is actually a good bit more than just two decades ago. But that's still two-thirds of the country without a degree at a time when the cost of not graduating from college keeps rising and rising. What are we going to do if we keep being unable to provide stagnant, let alone rising, real wages for most people? Well, we're going to do something else. Maybe we need more taxes-and-transfers. Or maybe we need more "pre-distribution" -- things like better infrastructure, a higher minimum wage, and easier unionization -- to increase people's pretax earnings.

But whatever it is, we need to do it soon. Decades are a terrible thing to waste, and we can't afford to waste any more of them.


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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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