Sociologists and economists have long written about the college-non college wage gap. People who attended college, and especially college graduates, tend to make more money than those who did not. The way this gap is usually discussed is in terms of the “returns to a college degree” or the “college premium.” For example, Hout’s (2012) excellent Annual Review piece on the subject is titled “Social and Economic Returns to College Education in the United States.” There’s something about this framing that’s always bothered me.
Back in the early 20th century, very few men attended college (and fewer women). The rate of college attendance, and graduation, increased throughout the 20th century (albeit bumpily). At this point, more 25-29 years olds have at least attended some college than not, and about a third have finished a bachelor’s degree or more. College is no longer the exception that it used to be.
College is also not perceived as optional. My understanding is that survey researchers have found that almost all high schoolers want to go to college, or at least believe that doing so is important for success.* That high school graduates fail to go to college is not easily attributable to a lack of desire. College is not just numerically normal, it’s socially normative.
For both of these reasons, it seems like talking about the “returns to a college degree” can be misleading because it suggests that attending college is a choice, and that not attending is the default. That was much more true when we had these debates in the 1960s and 1970s (around the time of the birth of human capital theory, which likely contributed to the “choice” framing).
Perhaps worse yet, I think this framing – and especially the “increasing returns to a college degree” frame – suggests the wrong trend. Increasing returns to college sounds like a situation where the base wage for a high school graduate has been flat, while the wages of the college-educated have increased. Instead, what we see is the wages for those with high school degrees falling while wages for the college educated have stagnated. The Pew Research Center published a report that frames this story nicely as The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. This chart shows how all of the increase in the college-non college gap for young adults (25-32) since 1986 comes from declines at the bottom.
To sum up: The “increasing returns to college” story makes attending college sound like a reward for a good choice, not a structured fact about unequal educational access, and it suggests a world in which college incomes are rising and non-college incomes are falling, rather than a world where the bottom is falling out. “The increasing penalty for not going to college” is a bit clunky, but (to my ear) solves those problems.
What do you all think? How should we talk about college-non college wage gaps?
* Here’s an example of the sort of evidence I’m thinking of: “95 percent of ACT-tested students from low-income families said they wish to pursue some type of postsecondary education.” That’s only students who actually took the ACT, however. Better citations for population-level data would be appreciated!
EDIT: The RDSL dataset has a nice question that speaks to college aspirations. When asked, “How far would you like to go in school?”, only 4% of a random sample of young women (aged 18-19) responded finishing high school. 95% said at least a 2 year degree, and 80% a 4 year degree or more.