In his (relatively) new gig as business and economics correspondent at Slate, Matt Yglesias is really churning out lots of material. Often, it’s useful and insightful, but, inevitably quality control is imperfect. Arguably, there’s still a net benefit from the increase in output, provided readers apply their own filters. Nevertheless, I got a bit miffed by this post, which makes a mess of a topic, I’ve covered quite a few times, namely the question of whether US middle class living standards are declining as regards services like higher education.
As I’ve pointed out, the number of places in most Ivy League colleges has barely changed since the 1950s, and many top state universities have been static or contracting since the 1970s. In addition, the class bias in admissions has increased. College graduation rates have increased modestly since the 1970s, but an increasing proportion of post-school education is at lower-tier state universities as well community colleges offering only associate degrees.
(Added in response to comments): Given static numbers at the top institutions, increasing populations, and a reduced share of admissions going to the middle class, education at the kinds of colleges usually discussed in this context (the top private and state universities) is an example where the middle class (roughly, the middle three quintiles) are getting less than they did 40 years ago. They’ve substituted cheaper second-tier and third-tier institutions where tuition, while rising fast, is much lower than at the Ivies, top state unis etc. But the chance of getting into the upper middle class (top quintile) with a degree from these schools is correspondingly lower. So, education as a route out of the middle class and into the top quintile is less accessible than forty years ago – this is leading to a reduction in already limited social mobility.
Yglesias says “Colleges charge much higher prices today than they did 40 years ago but many more people have college degrees” and backs this up with the following graph
What’s wrong with this picture?
Yglesias is looking at the proportion of the entire population who have a college education. The graph begins in 1947, when the oldest members of the population would have had their education in the second half of the 19th century. At the end of the period, we’re looking at people educated in the second half of the 20th. It’s no surprise that we observe a steady rise over that period. But, for the question he wants to answer what matters is the proportion of young people currently getting an education. A quick visit to Wikipedia produces a graph that tells the whole story.
Educational attainment for young people levelled out in the 1970s, and has grown only modestly since the 1990s, but the proportion of people with a college education kept growing rapidly, as young cohorts replaced those educated in the mid-20th century and earlier.
In addition to the declining share of high-grade institutions, and class bias in admissions, it’s worth recalling that, in the mid-20th century, it was possible, and widely seen as desirable, for a family to enjoy a middle-class (in fact, upper middle class) lifestyle with a single (male) earner. College participation rates for women were correspondingly lower than for men. Women’s graduation rates have exceeded those for men since the mid-1990s and (in the same process as in the graph above) this has now been reflected in the fact that more working women than men have college degrees. That’s positive in many ways, but it means that fewer young couples can meet the new middle-class threshold of two degrees today than could satisfy the 20th century requirement for one partner (normally the husband) to have a degree.
All of this is predictable enough, given stagnant incomes and rising tuition. Equally predictable is the lame rightwing talking point that consumption of items that have become cheaper, such as household appliances, has increased.
Update Coincidentally, just after posting I found this NY Times story about plummeting applications, and falling admissions, to law school. An extreme case, but an important one, given the historical role of the law degree as a passport to the (upper) middle class.
fn1. Something similar has happened at the high school level where the apparent constancy conceals an increased share of, largely useless, GED certificates.