Saying one thing and doing another

I have noted frequently that business, political and media elites are increasingly advising other people’s kids not to pursue a four year degree while their kids overwhelmingly are pursuing a four year degree.

The advice stems from the not accurate conventional wisdom that unless you get a four year degree in a STEM field you are likely to end up underemployed and consigned to a life as a pauper unable to pay off crushing student loans. Far better to get a two year degree or occupational certificate in a skilled trade or other mid skill occupations.

If accurate you would expect the affluent to want their kids to also forgo four year degrees in favor of pursuing two year degrees or occupational certificates. Clearly they don’t want their kids underemployed and/or crushed by student loans.

Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski in a research paper entitled “Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion” look at college enrollment and four year degree completion by household income. What did they find? The higher the family income the more likely their children are to enroll in college and earn a degree from a four year university. And the gap between those who grow up in upper income households and everyone else is growing over time.

So much for, when it comes to kids of the affluent, we have too many with four year degrees.

Bailey and Dynarski look at two cohorts: those born between 1961 and 1964 and those born between 1979 and 1982. For the 79-82 cohort they find that of those born into a top income quartile household 80% enroll in college and 54% earn a four year degree. For the third income quartile its 60% enrollment and 32% earn a four year degree. For the second quartile its 47% and 21%. And for the fourth (lowest) income quartile its 29% and 9%.

For the top income quartile college enrollment increased by 22 percentage points and four year degree attainment increased by 18 percentage points from the ’61-’64 birth cohort compared to the ’79-’82 birth cohort. For the third quartile the differences are 22 and 15 percentage points. For the second 15 and 7 percent points. And for the lowest the differences are ten and four percentage points.

What the affluent are doing, not what they are saying, is what we should want for all Michigan children. High quality pre school and k-12 education designed for college success. It is the most reliable path to good paying careers. Not guaranteed––there are no guarantees––but the path that gives you the broadest and most in demand skills for a career that will span forty years when no one knows what jobs and occupations will be in demand a decade from now let alone four decades in the future.

A four year degree is suppose to be the vehicle that best increases economic mobility and actualizes the basic American value of equal opportunity. Unfortunately at the moment it is working the other way. Reducing economic mobility because increasingly those earning four year degrees are the children of the affluent. And those earning four year degrees the least are children from the lowest income households.

Elites giving other’s kids advice not to pursue four year degrees while their kids do the opposite––whether intentional or not––reduces economic mobility at a time when, more than ever, we need to be moving in the opposite direction.



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