In a October 5 interview with the Washington Post, newly inaugurated Harvard University president Lawrence Bacow asserted that the differential lifetime earnings between a college and high school graduate has never been greater... From my reading of the evidence, I think that is simply incorrect. To be sure, there are different ways of measuring things :(using median or mean incomes, looking at all earners or simply those working, looking at males or at females, and also comparing different time periods). But from 2015 to 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau tells us the median annual income of male high school graduates in constant dollars rose a healthy $1,849, while those earnings declined by $565 for those with bachelors degrees. The data are less striking for females, but the college/high school earnings differential did decline for them as well. Looking at males again and looking at the longer 2008 to 2017 period, the constant dollar earnings differential between high school and college graduates declined, albeit modestly. The claim the earnings differential is at an all-time high simply is not supported by rather authoritative evidence.
I next decided to look at mean (not median) incomes, but only for full-time workers employed for the entire year. Again, the data show a recent meaningful decline in the differential between high school diploma holders and those with bachelors degrees. For males with high school diplomas, average earnings rose by $1,551 from 2015 to 2017; for bachelor degree holders, earnings actually fell by $367. For females, earnings rose $1,212 for those with high school diplomas, but only $312 for those with bachelors degrees. The payoff for having a college degree was falling.
This is confirmed by still other data on wages. The Wall Street Journal recently reported Labor Department data that earnings for those in low-paying jobs in the last couple of years have risen more than those for the highest earners. Since most low-paying jobs are held be those with a high school education or less, and those in the highest paid jobs are typically college educated, these findings are highly consistent with those of the Census Bureau. Some highly detailed Current Population Survey data shows that from July 2017 through June 2018, real wages rose 2% or more for those in the lowest-paying jobs, but generally less than 1% in high-paying ones.
Moreover, a 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of New York study showed that among poorer performing college graduates (those in the bottom one-fourth of their graduating class), earnings tend to be not much different than for the typical high school diploma holder. And many (about 40% by most estimates) college degree aspirants fail to get their degrees in any reasonable time period, often facing some college loan debt and only mediocre job prospects. Getting big salary gains through obtaining a college education is indeed a somewhat risky proposition.
As the costs of college rise and the benefits stagnate or even decline, it is no wonder enrollments have been falling for an unprecedented long time in an era of prosperity. Some would argue the recent wage data are atypical because of the extraordinarily tight labor marketlabor shortages for jobs like fast food restaurant employees or cashiers in retail stores exist now, but that is unusual, and the rise in the relative wages for those with low education is a temporary phenomenon. Perhaps that is right, but long term trends suggest we are overproducing college graduates: the number of graduates is growing faster than needed to fill newly created high skilled jobs and replace retiring workers.
As the weakness of a college for all approach to higher education policy becomes apparent, it seems time to change our financial assistance programs, reducing largely dysfunctional federal student loan programs for college students but providing more assistance, perhaps in the form of vouchers, allowing those with high school diplomas to take short certificated programs training them in a specific skilldriving a big truck, welding, plumbing, serving as a home health care aide. As our nations budget deficit reaches frightening levels for a booming nation with low unemployment, we need fiscally to do more with less. One place to start is reforming our system that lures too many students into degree programs inappropriate on both academic training and labor market grounds.