Looking Harder At The College-Prep Message

In Showdown On Church Street, I mentioned I'd be presenting a draft of my "Can Researchers and Practitioners Dance Together" paper to a murderers row of economists, including Dick Murnane. Dick and I hadn't seen each other for a while. I took his labor markets class in 1997. Murnane mentioned that one of my classmates that year was David Autor. Autor is now a hotshot MIT labor economist. If you're a labor economist, and one of your pupils goes on to be a labor economist at MIT....well, Murnane was beaming in recollection. I'll know that feeling when one of our charter school students goes on to become an amazing teacher or school leader.

The Internet Age being what it is, I reached out to David.

Would love your thoughts on the following.

Lots of charters, like mine, make a simple argument to black and Hispanic kids -- "Your family lives in poverty, you are unlikely to get high wage jobs in the trades b/c you have no connections or social capital. So your best chance to get out of poverty is to get a 4 year college degree. Otherwise you're likely to be a medical ass't or a security guard for 11/hour."

But we school leaders really know almost nothing about the real labor market and how it's changing. Do you think that's an appropriate message?

David wrote back:

I do think your message to the charter school students is appropriate. With only a high school degree, and no specific expertise, the range of jobs available is primarily in service occupations––such as security, food service, cleaning, and low skilled medical aides––or in manual labor positions.

There are some good noncollege jobs, but fewer than there used to be as a share of employment. Certainly, the high-paying union factory job of the 1950s through 1970s is almost extinct.

Good, noncollege jobs require additional training beyond high school, for example: radiology technicians, certain trades (such as plumbing), possibly some skilled mechanic positions, and of course, nursing.

David send along a 41-page paper. If you're open to such things, it's useful for No Excuses charter school folks. It digs past the usual "college grads will make $1 million more in their lifetimes."

He writes:

Although the college versus high school premium is a convenient measure of the economic payoff to higher education, focusing on it alone masks three important nuances that are particularly relevant to the evolution of wages in the U.S. labor market since 1979.

The first, portrayed in Figure 13, is that a sizable share of the increase in wages for college-educated workers relative to noncollege-educated workers since 1980 is explained by rising wages for workers with postbaccalaureate degrees. Real earnings for this group increased steeply and nearly continuously from at least the early 1980s to the present.

In contrast, earnings growth among those with exactly a four-year college degree was much more modest. For instance, real wages for males with exactly a four-year degree rose by only 10 percent between 1979 and 2007. This is an anemic performance compared to those males with postbaccalaureate degrees, who experienced real wage gains of 26 percent over the same period.

Right now our focus is getting kids to vault from near illiteracy to plausibly college ready. Can our schools set a much higher bar, of getting kids to ultimately be grad school ready? I.e., 3.5 GPAs? Or is that a bridge too far.

A second nuance is that a major proximate cause of the growing college/high school earnings gap is not steeply rising college wages but rapidly declining wages for the less educated—especially less-educated males. Real earnings of males with less than a four year-college degree fell steeply between 1979 and 2007—by 4 percent and 12 percent, respectively, for some-college and high school males, and by 16 percent for high school dropouts.

Got that? It's not that college grads are doing so much better. It's that non college grads are doing so much worse.

A third nuance, evident in the most recent two decades, is that while the earnings gaps among workers with some college education, workers with a high school degree, and workers who dropped out of high school expanded sharply in the 1980s, these gaps stabilized thereafter.

Increasingly, the wages of high school dropouts, high school graduates, and those with some college education moved in parallel—as if they were three “sizes” of the same underlying bundle of skill.

The net effect of these three trends—rising wages for college and postbaccalaureate-educated workers, stagnant and falling real wages for those without a four-year college degree, and the stabilization of the wage gaps among noncollege workers—is that the wage gains for additional years of schooling have become much steeper for very high levels of schooling and somewhat flatter for low levels of schooling.

Joanne Jacobs blogged yesterday about a related issue: a Northeastern University graduate who owes $200,000 but has a crappy job. She was a sociology major.

I think it's time for No Excuses teachers and schools to develop a more sophisticated message than simply "college." We have the right basic message for our kids, who are generally from poor families:

Without a college degree, you're quite likely to stay poor.

Now perhaps we should add:

Kiddos, listen up. There are more high-end jobs, and low-end jobs these days. But fewer "middle" jobs. That's the way it is. That middle will continue to shrink.

To win those scarce middle jobs, it helps to have connections. Your family may not have connections. It will be hard for you to elbow out high school grads from the suburbs to win these jobs.

Not only should you attend college, but you should consider some of the harder majors. Like - not sociology. No offense Nick Ehrmann! Not American Studies.

And if can earn a high college GPA, maybe you should get an advanced degree. That has the biggest payoff. It is most likely to put you in a financial position to help your family.

There's a whole monster separate issue around educating the legions of kids who will not ever achieve a college degree. But that's for another day.