February 21, 2011

Social Mobility and Higher Education

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

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)


Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

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.


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It pays to have a college degree, as statistics show and is proven over time. High cost of education will eventually lead to a stable job in the future, got to live with it.

Many jobs now require that you get a degree which wasn't required in the past. With the high cost of college, more people are having a hard time getting a higher paying job, or a job at all. For the economy to be able to grow at all, I think the educational system needs to change.

I think there are too many standards that have been recently come up with within the past couple decades for the education system. For example, the degrees that are required for a certain job. With the cost of college increasing and the more time needed to be in school, the price starts to add up and people can't get the jobs that pay more. Also with the dangerously low economy, getting jobs are difficult as it is.

People don't have much of a choice. With a growing demand for jobs in the service sector and less in the manufacturing industries, more people will need college degrees. While the prices and time given to college is substantial, it is becoming more and more necessary.

As time changes so do the needs and requirements of society. While we tend not to use the degree that we work so hard to get I wonder if there will come a time where you can only get a job that your degree is used for.

In this world today, you need a college degree to be anywhere in life. Jobs now require more college then before. Not only that college is very expensive and many students will be in alot of debt from taking out lones and help for them to pay for college. I think the smartest thing to do is to go to a commubnnity college for 2 years and then transfer. You save money and you still graduate from the 4 year good college. Unless you have a scholarship thats a good way to go and help pay for college.

Let's not forget that a college degree is more than just an economic advantage. Higher education is the cornerstone of any democratic society. An educated helps people make informed decisions when voting and facilitates active civic participation. While going to school to get a job is important, let's not lose sight of the bigger picture!

Being a high school senior looking at colleges for next year is very stressful. Seeing as tuition has an upward slope and it doesn't seem like that is going to change anytime soon it's good to know that most adults haven't even earned a four year degree.

Going to college is almost a must in today's society. For many well paying jobs you do need a college degree and without one good jobs are very hard to find. Many people say college is very expensive and they can not afford it but if you work hard and get a good education and good job everything will turn out fine. Not to mention signing up for scholarships and financial aid will help greatly.

What are the social factors that influence upward social mobility and persistent poverty of the American people?

The cost of education has become ridiculous. I know of people that probably will NEVER pay off their student loans. Meanwhile entrepreneurs are making up a larger portion of the wealthy class. If I had it to do over again, I'd probably skip college.

I know that getting a college degree is a must now and days as well. Im currently a senior in highschool and it seems everyone I run into is asking me where or if I'm going to college. So for me college seems like a good idea and a must if im going to get into what I want to do, but what I want to do doesn't really require college but I would like to see what its like.

the cost of college has doubled in the last 10 years, but looking at inflation. say a high 7% inflation rate over 10 years, something that cost a dollar in year 0 would be $1.97 in year 10. thats almost double, and now students expect more things to be "free" from their college which raises tuition even more.

In my sociology class, we are learning about social structure and roles in society. In today's world, it's difficult to move up in the world without a college degree and it becomes increasing stressful to pay for college and move up in the economic and social ladder.

I am personally interested in the reasons for why or why not someone should obtain a college degree. This article gives a clear picture of the reasons who or why not people choose to pursue a college degree. Sociological issues such as values and sanctions among subcultures can heavily sway a person in their educational decisions making.
I come from a family where no one has obtained a college degree and education beyond High school was never discussed. When I think back to my childhood I recall the emphasis of family and Catholic values. My parents never really discussed with me how to make a living or what university I should attend. There was never any mention of college, so there was also no negative sanctions toward people who went to college it just wasn’t there. I should make it clear that ever since I began college I have received only positive sanctions. My parents have supported me 100% and are proud of me. For me it is assuring to know that a college degree can improve my income and job security.
The “no guarantee” phrase for college has shown itself in people I know. Friends of mine have attended and graduated from college with a four year degree and have experienced no upward mobility. They often return from college and go back to working the same job they had before. Co-workers of mine have degrees, some a masters degree, and they are doing the same work and receiving the same pay as a person with only a High school diploma.
The rising debt from college loans is a greater burden for those who experience the “no guarantee”. When a person returns to the same job and salary as they had before college they actually have a decrease in economic status. Most people who go to college have jobs that pay only enough to live month to month. If they return to the same income they have an additional bill to pay every month, their student loan.
I believe that college has a value beyond the major you choose. college gives me personal progress and pride. Having something to work on and do my best at helps me maintain a positive frame of a mind and a sense of self worth. One personal improvement I have notice is in my skill level for writing papers. Even though writing papers is not my major, I believe it is a skill that will be useful in many ways throughout my life.

Dear author,
I am heading to college in the fall and the increasing tuition prices have really been a set back for many people to earn the education that they need. Most high paying jobs are not available at all to people without a college education. SO it is obviously very important,there can be huge student debts like you stated.
In our sociology class we have been learning about education this chapter. About the different types, college is one of the education types that are very important. And depending on one's social status, they may or may not get the better education. The more wealthy tend to get better educations which make them more successful in the long run.

It's sad that people can get so far behind financially after college. However, most people don't really have a choice because it has become clear that people without a college education are at a disadvantage. We need fix the mess we're getting into by not allowing the banks to toy with students as much as they are now.

In this time having a college education is important. Even though many smart, successful people have not gone to college or only went for a few years there is still a stigma within society that it is bad to not go to college. Top paying jobs require degrees and people assume people with degrees are smarter.

Growing up with two parents who went to college and have always encouraged me to go to college has definitely swayed my mindset, just as mentioned in the video. Children of college graduates grow up seeing the benefits of higher education, and for many, the option of NOT attending college nearly disappears! I couldn't agree more with the statement that college degrees are sort of like insurance against downward mobility. The statistics provided paint a clear picture that college graduates have a far lower rate of unemployment compared to high school grads. In today's information-based society, it is near impossible to get a high paying job without higher education. With everyone competing for resources, those who have the best credentials (i.e. a college degree) will be the most successful. I saw a comment above that also noted that higher education is important to democracy, which I also strongly agree with. We can't have a highly competitive nation without intelligent and well-educated citizens running it!
It is rather unfortunate that tuition and fees have gone up significantly over the years, because this discourages lower class citizens from obtaining that degree. This lack of education just continues the cycle of lower class citizens who are too poor to get an education and a good job to break that cycle.

Many people are now required to have a college degree just in order to fin a job that will meet the cost of living in the United States. When the United States became industrialized education became a priority not a choice.

I think its necessary to receive some sort of college education just to afford to live! The cost to go to college has gotten ridiculous, and I still have 3 years before I even go to college. I am not going to get my way through college paid for, which means im going to take it all in as debt. It's depressing thinking about how much everything costs. But I think that you have to go to college in order to get a decent job. There is so much competition in the job market, and having a college education would put you miles ahead of someone who only has a high school diploma.

Thanks for sharing this post Karen. It is certainly a big advantage if you have a degree when it comes to getting a job. At the same time, it is unfortunate that the cost of degrees just keeps rising. Surely you would have thought if there was one thing that should not cost a lot, it should be education.

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