America’s low-lying educational fruit

By Felix Salmon
March 24, 2013

I can’t remember ever thinking that I might not go to college. Both of my parents have graduate-level degrees, as does my sister; I’m the least-educated member of my family. Which is why I’m shocked but not surprised by the amazing series of charts that Evan Soltas has put together about the way in which educational attainment is inherited.

The short version can be told in two charts. The first shows the clear relationship between income (which runs along the x-axis) and educational attainment. You can’t read the x-axis here, but the middle of the chart corresponds to an annual income of about $100,000 per year; below that, very few people have a college degree, while only at the very top of the income spectrum does it become the norm.


Now look at the same chart, but looking only at people whose fathers have a college degree. Suddenly it’s a sea of yellow, even at lower incomes, while the red bars (high-school dropouts) have pretty much almost entirely disappeared.


The lower graph, of course, is what we would want the US population as a whole to look like, in some ideal world: just about everybody graduating high school, with lots of bachelor’s (light yellow) and graduate (dark yellow) degrees. This is the world of opportunity facing people whose fathers graduated college, and it would be great if people whose fathers didn’t graduate college had a glimpse of it.

Sadly, they really don’t. As Caroline Hoxby Christopher Avery show, poor kids simply don’t apply to the best universities, and often end up at subpar two-year colleges even when they have excelled at high school and could get full scholarships to the best colleges if only they just applied.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, rich kids are paying far too much for graduate degrees which simply aren’t worth it. Matt Yglesias makes that point about journalism school: at $83,884 for one year, not to mention the opportunity cost of all the money you could have earned and connections you could have made by staying in the real world, it’s an insanely expensive piece of paper, which makes working for free online look downright lucrative in comparison. And Bendor Grosvenor has a clear-eyed look at the world of $75,000 degrees in art business, of all things: they’re “next best thing”, he says, to working for free for a few years as an art-world intern.

Educational qualifications are a way of getting your foot in the door, of getting entry to a certain world. Getting your high-school diploma opens up a huge world to you which would never otherwise be within reach; getting an undergraduate degree opens up a smaller but more lucrative world. Graduate degrees don’t carry the same kind of clear cost/benefit advantage, but they do nearly always give you some kind of opportunity — in the world of journalism, or in the art world, or even as a lawyer — which would otherwise most likely be closed off to you. The chances of becoming a tenured professor, for instance, are slim at the best of times, but they’re pretty much zero if you don’t have a PhD.

College isn’t always worth the money, and it’s almost never worth it if you end up dropping out. If more people go to college, more people will drop out, and in general more people will end up having wasted their money, and would have been better off never going in the first place. But from a public-policy perspective, as Soltas says, the numbers are inarguable — especially when you realize that once a single person graduates from college, you’re not getting just one degree out of that deal. Rather, you’re getting many generations’ worth of college graduates: the degree-holder’s kids, and their kids, and so on.

America greatly admires people who were the first person in their family to go to college — and rightly so. We should put some real money, and some policy, where our admiration is. If we want to become a better-educated society, we have to target the low-lying fruit — the non-U families — rather than spending any extra effort on pushing a college education on the kind of people who are always going to get a degree anyway.

Update: Thomas Lumley has prettier versions of the charts.


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I think the midpoint of the x-axis on the second graph is 20K, not 100K. That is, the x-axis is not uniform in income:
(from the linked article):”Notice that college graduation rates are approximately 10 percent until the midpoint …that’s the $20,000 mark, roughly speaking.”

Posted by mbb3735 | Report as abusive

Equality of opportunity, baby! Or, maybe length-of-one’s-bootstraps, and so corresponding ease of lifting oneself thereof, is just a very strongly inherited, y-linked, trait?

Posted by mw1 | Report as abusive

According to Soltas the middle of the chart is $20K not $100K. Three quarters over on the chart is $50K. It’s showing percentiles so not linear with dollars.

Posted by right | Report as abusive

Some will assume genetics combined with fatherly drive, example, subsidies, and the family business, mean reversion countered by parental involvement, so less amenable to social inducements. One wonders what the return to college would be if everyone did so, or how much servicing the car or shampooing the carpet would cost then.

Posted by MyLord | Report as abusive

How valid are the father-filtered results for the future? College has become a lot more commonplace; there are many who believe its social signalling worth is greatly diluted today vs 30 years ago.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

“We should put some real money, and some policy, where our admiration is.”

Then consider donating to a school that serves primarily first-generation urban girls?

As you say, they have scholarships available to them if they simply graduate from high school with a good work ethic and decent skills (and apply). Bridging that gap is both shockingly cheap, less than $12k/student-year all-in, and frustratingly out of reach.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Felix, Thanks for the link. I’m stunned more of “the discussion” — you know the set of bloggers, writers, etc. who seem to be in constant debate — doesn’t use GSS data. Every time I think there might be something useful there, I check. Good reference to the Hoxby research too — there’s a strong argument to be made, I think, that mismatch (in both directions) is a major obstacle to our thesis of high-marginal-returns-to-first-generatio n-education.

Posted by EvanSoltas | Report as abusive

“Low-lying fruit” assumes that this is an easy proposition and that educators at every level have not already been attempting to address this population. Both of those assumptions would be erroneous.

Posted by LTake | Report as abusive

Let’s reconsider whether the “ideal” is that just about everyone goes to college for an undergraduate degree.
Consider the focuse of this book and its challenge to see skilled labor in a positive and proper light alongside the academic trades.

A philosopher/mechanic’s wise (and sometimes funny) look at the challenges and pleasures of working with one’s hands

Called “the sleeper hit of the publishing season” (The Boston Globe), Shop Class as Soulcraft became an instant bestseller, attracting readers with its radical (and timely) reappraisal of the merits of skilled manual labor. On both economic and psychological grounds, author Matthew B. Crawford questions the educational imperative of turning everyone into a “knowledge worker,” based on a misguided separation of thinking from doing. Using his own experience as an electrician and mechanic, Crawford presents a wonderfully articulated call for self-reliance and a moving reflection on how we can live concretely in an ever more abstract world.

Posted by bny | Report as abusive

Sometimes, elites put too much emphasis on “top” colleges – much research shows that if all you do is get a bachelor’s degree, there is virtually no economic difference over a lifetime between going to Harvard or XYZ College (it does make a difference for the smaller group which goes on to the graduate level – there will be an economic difference on average in getting an MBA from Stanford than from XYZ College). BTW, my father did not finish grammar school and I have two graduate degrees; and, I also do not remember ever thinking I would not go to college.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

@LTake, it isn’t an easy proposition, but plenty of schools have solved it. The biggest problem is that you need a different model for education, one that is more time-intensive than the traditional schools and puts resources towards bridging the home/school divide. I’m not at all certain that this can be achieved through the public school systems, as they are too thoroughly entrenched in their old habits and contracts.

Yet if you pay salaries in the $30k-$40k range, and hire enough staff to keep average class size under 12 (with additional emphasis on guidance), you can give these students the attention and support they need to succeed, at a cost cheaper than what the public schools spend.

Posted by TFF17 | Report as abusive

Did the well-endowed universities get a copy of this?

Posted by CharlieB | Report as abusive