The room for higher-education growth is in the economic bottom-half

May 25, 2011 at 8:26 am 5 comments

A new report says that the greatest potential for growing higher-education is in the bottom half of the US economy.  I found the below graph from the report pretty startling — I had heard that the US already had a very high percentage of higher-education degrees among its citizens, but this graph suggests that we’ve got quite a long way to go.

President Obama has set a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

The report, “Developing 20/20 Vision on the 2020 Degree Attainment Goal: The Threat of Income-Based Inequality in Education,”argues that the “nation’s failure to keep pace with other countries in educational attainment among 25- to 34-year-old adults can be largely traced to our inability to adequately educate individuals from families in the bottom half of the income distribution.”

If all Americans attained bachelor’s degree by age 24 at the same rate as do individuals from the top half of the income distribution, the United States would now have the highest share of bachelor’s degree recipients in the world, the report says.

via To Raise Educational Levels, Focus on Income-Based Inequality, Report Urges – Students – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Guzdial  |  May 25, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Interesting piece in the NYTimes yesterday about the out-sized influence that the top universities have on American society, and how those universities have few lower-income students.

  • 2. Rob St. Amant  |  May 25, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    You might find another graph interesting, in the OECD report from which the Pell Institute took the bar chart. It’s “Chart A1.1. Population that has attained tertiary education (2008)”, a comparison between the percentages of 25-to-34-year-olds and of 55-to-64-year-olds with tertiary education. For the U.S., the percentages of the two age groups are almost identical at just over 40%, but the pattern is different for most other countries that do better than the U.S.: younger people are much more likely to have tertiary education–in the case of Korea, there’s a difference of more than 40 percentage points. My interpretation (ignoring older, non-traditional students) is that 30 years ago we were near the head of the pack, but we’ve fallen behind.

  • 3. Gilbert Bernstein  |  May 26, 2011 at 2:39 am

    Does it make sense for us to increase the percentage of the workforce with college degrees? That is, do we think there’s sufficient economic demand to gainfully employ many more college graduates, or do we think that there will be (for instance) a renewal of American manufacturing?

    That aside, I’m all behind fighting the income/education gap, but I wonder if the best way to do so is by allocation of additional resources or by the reallocation of existing resources.

    • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  May 26, 2011 at 7:58 am

      There’s also the issue that the economy need for college graduates varies pretty widely depending on what those degrees are in. Graduating more english majors won’t get us more engineers, doctors, nurses, etc. And graduating more people with degrees in IT from community colleges won’t get us more Stanford computer scientists.

      What the degree is in, and where is it from, matter a lot. But these facts are completely obfuscated when dealing with high level statistics regarding the simple benefits of having a degree.

  • 5. Mark Miller  |  June 20, 2011 at 12:45 am

    I agree with Erik’s comment. Thomas Sowell wrote about the dangers of thinking that the number of people with degrees will determine national success without asking what the subject areas of those degrees are, in The “Education” Mantra. It relates to what C.P. Snow talked about, but with more sinister implications.

    I’m also reminded of the scene in, “Searching For Bobby Fischer,” where the young student asks his teacher about his points, and whether he has enough for a certificate. The teacher just tells him, “Focus on the game. Don’t worry about the certificate.” The boy insists. Finally the teacher gets exasperated and says, “Fine. Here’s your certificate. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a piece of paper. In fact, I’ve got more. Here…here’s some more. It doesn’t mean anything,” and he pulls out wads of certificates from his satchel.

    We should be striving for quality, not quantity; understanding and perception, not the piece of paper at the end of it. You can graduate as many students as you like, but I don’t think it means anything if they think like high school students did 30+ years ago.

    What surveys like this miss is what’s being learned, and what the goals are. There’s a temptation among those who are aware enough to look at our country from a high place, and the world, to try to “game” the situation, to think, “If everyone could be motivated to move this direction it would be great.” In some cases it would be, but this country doesn’t work in such a way that one person can say, “Jump,” and everyone else asks, “How high,” and I think it’s good we don’t operate that way. I’d hate to see what most people would want to motivate our populace to do en masse.

    I’d like to see our country do better economically, but I really think it comes down to culture, and I don’t see where an education industry that’s bent on doing things on an industrial scale can really influence that.


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