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By Anthony P. Carnevale andMichelle Melton
W
e’ve beenhere before. The Great Recession,
like recessions before it, has many people publicly
wondering whether college is a safe investment. With
many college graduates unsuccessful in finding work, the
temptation to reject postsecondary education as a viable
option grows stronger, especially among working families.
Unfortunately, the media have added confusion to the
story at a time when clarity is needed most. Media stories on
the value of college follow the business cycle, and when the
cycle is down, journalists on deadline often find it easy to
write a story that bucks the conventional wisdom. Headlines
that suggest postsecondary education no longer pays off in
the labor market are news because they play into middle class
parents’ fears that they will not be able to give their children
the advantages they had. The bad advice gets more pointed
as the recession deepens. This year, the
New York Times
had
“Plan B: Skip College,” while the
Washington Post
ran “Parents
Crunch the Numbers andWonder, Is College Still Worth
It?” Even the
Chronicle of Higher Education
has succumbed,
recently running “Here’s Your Diploma. NowHere’s Your
Mop,” a story about a college graduate working as a janitor
that implies a college degree may not be worthwhile in today’s
economic climate.
The current recession isn’t the first to produce such gloom.
The
New York Times
and other prominent newspapers were
printing the same stories
in the early 1980s, during
the last severe recession.
At that time, the
Times
ran headlines like
“The Underemployed:
Working for Survival
Instead of Careers.”The
Washington Post
even
ran the college graduate-
to-janitor story back in
1981: “When Lyman
Crump graduated with
a liberal arts degree
he was confident his
future rested in an office
somewhere. But after working a year as a file clerk, Crump, 31,
took a higher-paying job as a janitor.”
And it’s not just the journalists that get gloomy. The
New
York Times
quoted Ronald Kutscher, associate commissioner
at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1984, as saying, “We are
going to be turning out about 200,000 to 300,000 too many
college graduates a year in the ’80s.” Yet the 1980s was a
decade that saw an unprecedented rise in the wage premium
for college-educated workers over high school-educated
December 2010
Making the Middle Class
Don’t let the recession fool you—postsecondary education is more valuable than ever
workers that has not been matched since—an indication
that the postsecondary systemwas underproducing college
graduates, not, as Kutscher went on to say, that “the supply
far exceeds the demand.”The Bureau of Labor Statistics still
hasn’t changed its mind; according to the bureau, in 2008
the education system produced 22 million more people with
postsecondary education than the economy required. Never
mind that the college wage premium over high school degrees
still exceeds seventy percent.
The sensationalist stories, the high unemployment among
college grads, and the misleading official data are unlikely to
keep middle- and upper-class youth from going to college.
The real tragedy of these headlines is the message they send to
less privileged youth for whom college is not an assumed path.
The negative press on college fuels pre-existing biases among
working families that college is neither accessible nor worth
the cost and effort. Moreover, the bad press and worse data
strengthen the hand of elitists who argue that college should
be the exclusive preserve of those born into the right race,
ethnicity and bank account.
Yet evidence demonstrates increasing demand for college,
and the future promises more of the same. By 2018, 63 percent
of jobs nationwide will require some form of postsecondary
degree. Moreover, postsecondary education has become the
only way to secure middle-class earnings in America and, for
the least advantaged among us, is now the only way to escape
poverty. In 1970, about 60 percent of Americans who attained
middle-class status were high school graduates or dropouts.
Today, only 46 percent can be found there. In contrast, 44
percent of the top three income deciles had postsecondary
education in 1970; today, 81 percent do.
The press coverage and expert stumbles don’t reflect the
empirical reality, but they are symptomatic of a mundane
human instinct. People tend to project what’s happening in
the present into the distant future. If housing prices are great,
The negative press
on college fuels
pre-existing biases
among working
families that college
is neither accessible
nor worth the cost
and effort.