Higher Education, Inequality, and the Public Good

Higher Education, Inequality, and the Public Good

Is it possible that our thinking on the question of college access and economic inequality is back to front? At a time when some young Americans are quite literally dying to go to college—the primary reason now cited by young recruits for enlisting in the U.S. military is their desire to obtain financial assistance for college—we need to take a serious second look at what is being said and done with higher education and young people in this country. Now that alternative historical avenues for social and economic advancement (for example, industry-wide unionization and expanding public sector employment) have been shut down or obstructed, going to college remains the only legitimate, large-scale means for getting ahead. Yet even as demand for college education swells across the nation, the sobering truth is that college, in its current form at least, can help only a few of us resolve our labor market difficulties. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, no more than 30 percent of jobs in the United States currently, and for the foreseeable future, will require a college degree.

Unless we rethink fundamentally the approach we have been taking to college we may well be backing ourselves into a corner from which there is no way out. Such rethinking requires us to enter into a new conversation about the relation of higher education not just to inequality in this country (and beyond) but also to our vision of the “public good.” This conversation needs to include individuals of all social backgrounds, occupations, and levels of income and education—unlike today’s, in which research and debate on higher education is preoccupied with what is happening on college campuses, in isolation from what is happening away from them, and is dominated by the voices of current and former chancellors, provosts, and presidents from elite universities. In this essay, I look at one piece of the overall problem—the wage gap between the college and non-college educated in America—in order to suggest some of the directions that this larger conversation must explore.

The College/Non-College Wage Gap

In 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, four-year college graduates in America earned an average paycheck nearly double that of high school graduates. Holders of doctoral degrees earned nearly three times, and holders of professional degrees more than four times, what high school graduates were making. Of course, there are important exceptions to the overall wage and wealth gap. America’s richest individual in 2005, Bill Gates, is, after all, a college dropout. Other familiar examples of the non-college wealthy include professional athletes, film stars, recording artists, and television personalities. Signs have emerged, too, of college graduates’ languishing in unemployment or low-wage employment: driving taxis, tending bars, working the late shift at the local 7-11. Even for college graduates employed in professi...

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