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.

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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.

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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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