Social Mobility and Higher Education
If you want to move up the economic ladder in the United States, one of the best ways to do so is to earn a college degree. Education has been central to upward mobility, particularly during the last century. You might have grandparents or great-grandparents who came from humble beginnings, earned a college degree, and were able to find high-paying jobs. In fact, that might be your goal right now.
You might be surprised to know that education was not always central to upward mobility historically. According to the census, in 1940 less than five percent of all adults 25 and older had a four-year college degree, increasing modestly to eight percent in 1960. In a manufacturing-based economy, education is less important to ensuring economic stability. Likewise, in farming-based economies, an education about agricultural procedures makes sense (which is why most states have agricultural programs in rural areas), but other majors had less practical uses before World War II.
Changes in the economy have made an education more important in the labor force; by 2009 the percentage of college graduates reached nearly thirty percent. In an information-based economy such as our own, higher education is increasingly valued economically. As Bureau of Labor Statistics show, those with college degrees are less likely to be unemployed, and are also likely to earn higher salaries.
But lately there has been a growing obstacle for many people seeking to earn degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the cost of a public four-year degree has nearly doubled between 1964 and 2009 when adjusted for inflation. Private school tuition, fees, room and board have increased nearly three-fold during this time. As you can see from the graph below, tuition was relatively steady before increasing in the mid-1980s.
Public College/University Tuition, Room and Board (held constant in 2007-2008 dollars)
This increase means that many more students have to borrow money to attend college. According to the Project on Student Debt the average debt load students carry after graduation nearly doubled between 1996 and 2008, from $12,750 to $23,200. The majority of students graduate with some debt: 62 percent of those attending public universities, 72 percent who attended private non-profit universities, and 96 percent of those who attended private for-profit universities.
Debt repayment has become common today, but in the middle of the twentieth century it would have been rare to graduate with debt. This is partially because before the Federal Student Aid Act of 1965 students who needed financial assistance might not have been able to get help. This act enabled millions more people to attend college, many who likely could not have without loans or grants.
Some critics argue that the higher number of college degree seekers has created credential inflation. One the one hand, employers might require job applicants to hold a college degree, although the position might not really involve anything the applicant learned in college. In a tight job market, like the one many job seekers face now, holding a degree might be one way to narrow the field.
A degree might be used as a proxy for other traits, like commitment, maturity, and determination. Ironically, the more jobs require a degree, the more people might be likely to turn to colleges and universities of questionable quality (especially those that are not accredited) for their degree, racking up student loan debt without adding marketable skills.
As a Los Angeles Times entertainment columnist wrote, in Hollywood a college degree is not really necessary to rise in the industry, where hands-on experience is king. There are also some other industries, like the restaurant business, where you learn on the job and don’t necessarily need a college degree to move up the ladder.
That said, those with a college degree fare better in tough times. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in 2010 for those with at least a bachelor’s degree was 4.7 percent, compared with 8.4 for those with some college, 10.3 for high school graduates, and 14.9 for those without a high school diploma. A degree might not guarantee upward mobility anymore, but it is a good insurance policy against downward mobility.