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Erik writes:

The growth fields all require higher education but the economy leaves absolutely no future for those who simply aren’t suited for higher education. This is something that virtually no one involved in education or employment policy wants to deal with or even admit. Yet anyone with working class relatives knows that some are simply not suited for higher education under any circumstances for a variety of reasons. This has to be taken seriously for social stability.

I would add that significant numbers of middle and upper class people are also not suited for higher education, but because college education in America is a crucial class marker and social sorting device, the higher a family is in the SES hierarchy, the more vigorously this will be denied (at least in regard to its own children), and the more aggressively checkbooks will be deployed to keep that denial intact.

Erik is pointing to a huge social problem, which is made all the more difficult by a consensus, broadly shared across the ideological spectrum, that more education is the solution to an almost unlimited number of economic and social problems. For obvious reasons, those peddling these cures — which as he says is almost everybody in and around the world of education and employment policy — are not eager to consider that a large percentage of the population is not going to be helped by ever-more elaborate treatments along these lines.

Some statistics:

(1) The number of students in American higher education has increased 244% in the last 50 years, which is about four times faster than the growth of the populace as a whole.

(2) Median weekly earnings of full-time workers with a BA or more have barely budged over the last 35 years, rising from $1150 per week in 1979 to about $1225 per week in 2014 (2014$).

(3) Over that same time frame, tuition has quadrupled at public four-year institutions and tripled at their private counterparts, in constant dollars.

(4) Higher education in America is more heavily subsidized today than it was 35 years ago, on a per student, constant dollar basis.

(5) The enormous increase in money flowing into higher ed, in the form of radically higher tuition combined with somewhat higher per student subsidization, has taken place at the same time that average faculty compensation has fallen by a lot. (At the top end of the education hierarchy endowments have also exploded, at rates that would have made Andrew Carnegie blush).

(6) Less than one third of American adults 25 years or older have a four-year college degree (or more).

(7) While the wages of the college-educated have on average remained flat over the past generation, those of the large majority of Americans who don’t have a college degree have fallen considerably.

Some observations:

*Even as recently as the 1980s, the vast majority of the cost of going to college, for the vast majority of students who attended public institutions, was opportunity cost. This is increasingly no longer the case. Average public tuition is now nearly what average private tuition was 35 years ago, while private college costs have reached levels that would have been considered completely incredible a generation ago.

*Remarkably, enrollment in private higher ed has grown much faster than public school enrollment. The former has doubled over the past 30 years, which is twice the rate of growth in public higher ed enrollment (much of this growth has been driven by the for-profit sector, which barely existed 30 years ago).

*The growth in the “college premium” (the correlation between more education and higher earnings) has been almost exclusively a product of the decline in earnings for people with less than a four-year degree, rather than in any growth in earnings among the college-educated.

*To the extent that higher earnings for people with more education represents credentialism, which is to say the distribution of positional goods, then addressing economic inequality by sending more people to college is considerably worse than useless, especially given the spiraling costs of acquiring those credentials.

*Anyone who argues that the key to “economic opportunity,” aka a decent job, is to have a college degree is in effect arguing that it’s OK for a large majority of Americans not to have a decent job.

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