Indication of a Divide or Superfluity?
Rich Lowry writes about “a slow-motion social and economic evisceration of a swath of Middle America”:
In the 1970s, 73 percent of both the highly and moderately educated were in intact first marriages. That figure plummeted across the board, yet the moderately educated (45 percent in intact first marriages) are now closer to the least-educated (39 percent) than to the highly educated (56 percent).
The number for out-of-wedlock births is starker. From 1982 until today, the percentage of non-marital births among the moderately educated exploded from 13 percent to 44 percent. That figure is close to the least-educated (54 percent) and a vast distance from the highly educated (only 6 percent). Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation compares the dynamic to a carpet unraveling from the bottom, as illegitimacy first took hold among the poor and now works up the income scale.
Much of what Lowry writes is inarguable. That’s especially true when it comes to economic mobility: families at the bottom of the scale are more likely to find themselves remaining there generation after generation as the habits of stability — most critically, the concept of insoluble marriage and its intrinsic relation to childbirth — evaporate from the common culture. But a chart that Lowry has posted in the Corner makes me wonder if some of the calamity isn’t a shadow consequence of the higher education bubble:
Thanks to the stable marriage around which it is built, my household is pretty close to where the yellow line suggests that we should be, given our college degrees. Here’s the thing: I’m a carpenter, part of a new generation entering the trade, many of us with four-year degrees. I was an oddity when I started. In my current company of four, only one lacks a degree. In other words, folks who were previously on the purple and brown lines of the chart aren’t necessarily making less money; at least some of them have just transitioned to the yellow line, as college degrees become sufficiently ubiquitous that blue collar employers can begin using them for job screening just as white collar employers have been doing.
Glenn Reynolds yesterday linked to an essay by Richard Vedder that comes to the same place from a different direction:
… approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. Only a minority of the increment in our nation’s stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor’s degree or more.
As Reynolds states, the “tuition they’re paying is basically wasted,” which brings the analysis around to the reason that tracking with the yellow line hasn’t necessarily been a boon for us highly educated laborers. My family is certainly not unique in having been caught so thoroughly in the debt trap that we need college-educated salaries in order to maintain a high-school diploma lifestyle.
College loans are definitely part of the detrimental equation, and so were the the four-plus years spent living away from the parental nest without full-time paying jobs. Throw in the vehicles that we had to buy on credit, upon entering the workforce, because we didn’t have those years in our pre-parenthood early twenties of having more income than we had expenses. Then layer in the false expectations that promotion of the economic benefits of college have instilled in soon-to-be-over-educated generations. (Mounting credit card debt is much more tolerable when twenty-five year olds look at the yellow line as a promise.)
I’ve long thought that history would view the modern debt trap as a more sophisticated indentured servitude, and higher education is a central gear in that machine, with paper and plastic credit as the oil that makes the crank easier to work than it ought to be.