Some Quick Numbers

Cost of college degree, 1970s, in 2005 $$: 51,348$
Median per year income for someone without a degree: 42,697
Median for someone with: 51,223

Expected lifetime earning from 18-65 for someone without:
47 * 42,697= 2,006,759$

Expected lifetime earning from 22-65 for someone with:
43*52,223 – 51,348*4= 2,194,241

Lifetime difference: Fairly trivial.

Cost of college degree, today: 108,000$
Median per year income for someone without a degree: 30,400
Median for someone with: 50,700

Expected lifetime earning from 18-65 for someone without: 1,428,800

Expected lifetime earning from 22-65 for someone with: 2,072,100

Lifetime difference: far more significant.

(Obviously, the numbers reflect a number of simplifications and generalizations. For example, some people get grants to offset the cost of college–but other people get loans, which have to be repaid with interest.)
Sadly, the increase in # of people going to college does not appear to have benefited us as a society.
(Numbers from "Strapped" by Tamara Draut.)

One thought on “Some Quick Numbers”

  1. Do you have figures other than the median for average income? For example, even if the median was the same for both groups in the 1970s, the mean income could still be significantly higher for the college educated group, because they may have a greater oppurtunity to achieve a higher paying job. Job security may also be lower among the uneducated group, but this wouldn’t be reflected in median income figures alone, becuase the unemployed don’t have an income, whereas if you included the mean and standard deviation in incomes the difference would immediately become obvious. In any case, you don’t have sufficient evidence here to conclude that the difference between having and not having a college degree in the 1970s was financially ‘trivial.’

    Secondly, you’re not taking into account the differences between the tertiary education sectors now and then (admittedly I’m basing this part of my argument on the Australian experience, and I can only assume that the US may have followed a similar pattern). Many occupations that forty years ago could have been practiced with no more than a high school diploma and an apprenticeship now require college level qualifications. The median income for the 1970s may in fact be higher than it is now because all of the relatively high income earners of the uneducated group circa the 1970s now need college educations to become accountants, clerks, and petty businessmen, whereas if they entered these professions in the 1950s they would not have done. As a result, your conclusion that the lower present-day median income for workers without college qualifications indicates that society as a whole has become poorer may be flawed, because you haven’t demonstrated that the total number of people earning the median income for present-day college educated workers hasn’t dramatically increased to compensate.

    You also haven’t specified whether these incomes are before or after tax, and what this does the level of equality between the two groups’ incomes, and more importanly what this implies for a comparison between present and past figures.

    Finally, you seem to be implying that in an ideal world there should be no difference in the income of a college educated worker and non-college educated worker. Is it really just that the investment in time, work and effort required to become a surgeon should not receive a greater reward than the heavy-drinking and casual sex required to become a high-school dropout? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the current system isn’t producing vast numbers of people who lack tertiary qualifications through no fault of their own and who do deserve incomes comparable to those achievable with a college education; but your conclusion’s implication that there should ideally be no reward for merit (or that attaining a tertiary qualification is not meritorious) is dubious in the least.

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