Everything’s Getting Worse but College Might Make Things Less Worse for Some

Wossamotta U.That’s kind of how I feel after reading Jared Bernstein’s sensible take on the college earnings premium. It’s not that there isn’t one, but, as he puts it, “it doesn’t inoculate you against global wage arbitrage, accelerating labor-saving technology, and high unemployment.”

Bernstein shows that the college earnings premium has been flat for women over at least the past decade, and rising a lot more slowly for men than it was back in the 1980s. But this data includes people my age who started out in better paying jobs after earning their degree. I’d be interested to see the wage differential between those with just a high school degree and those under 30 with a college degree. Considering that average wages for college graduates have been falling steadily since even before the recession, I don’t understand why the wage differential for future generations won’t continue to narrow.

The other point is that not all college degrees are the same. A BA from Harvard presumably has more earnings potential than a BA from lower tier school. But unless I’m mistaken, the college premium argument is based on the average earnings of everyone currently in the workforce with a college degree, young and old.

It seems like we’re asking young people and adults without college degrees to work harder and invest more in education, but settle for less—maybe a lot less, in terms of earnings—than prior generations.

In the comments section to Bernsteins’s post, someone argues that “[E]lectricians, plumbers, carpenters, HVAC, exterminators, all blue collar work etc. is where the future lies… [T]hose trades carry little or no debt, have apprenticeships and pay well from the get-go. AND they carry job security.” It’s kind of old-fashioned now to talk about, but a lot of adult education programs can (and do) help adults move into those kinds of careers. The emphasis in adult education now is to ensure that adults become college and career ready, and I hope the career readiness piece looks at ways to help more adults move into apprenticeships for these kinds of jobs.