College and Inequality


Ezra points to a chart showing stagnant wage data for college graduates and non-graduates alike during the oughts and says it "cuts powerfully against the comforting story some tell themselves about inequality, which is that it's skills-based and simply a reflection of educational differences in our grand polity. The massive gains in wealth in this country are apportioning to a small slice of rich people at the very top of the income distribution, not the broad mass of skilled, college-educated workers who hoped they were buying into the economic ruling class but, in fact, are just the new middle."

I think this is misleading on a couple of levels. Take a gander at my chart, reproduced from an EPI report on "Education and the Inequality Debate" and you'll see that while they find no increase in the wage premium in the past few years, there was a huge run-up in the wage premium in the 1980s that hasn't declined at all. It's true that there's more to the inequality story than this, and it's a mistake to monomaniacally focus on educational attainment as the only factor driving inequality, but it's equally foolish to deride the data showing an increase from a 30 percent premium in the early 1970s to a new plateau around 45 percent in the 1990s and 2000s.

An increase of that scale ought to lead to a European-style increase in the proportion of people who graduate from college, increasing the supply of college educated professionals and bringing the premium back down to earth. But it hasn't, for reasons that remain slightly mysterious but appear to implicate, among other things, inadequate preparation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and screwy priorities on the part of institutions of higher education. Nor, I note, should we view this part of the story as especially "comforting" -- there are some good ideas around about improving the education system, but there are also a ton of unanswered questions and a mountain of information to suggest that dramatically improving school performance for kids from difficult backgrounds is incredibly difficult.