Educating the Masses

Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters spray-paints the words Clive Crook contends that, “Broadly speaking, educational quality has topped out – and on at least one measure, it is actually deteriorating. In 2006, Americans aged 55-59 collectively possessed more masters degrees, professional degrees and doctorates than Americans aged 30-34.” 

Arnold Kling fears that this is just a caste system at work, observing, “I don’t think we have a recipe that says, Take a child of two non-college educated parents, add primary education ingredient X, bake, and out comes a college-capable high school graduate.“  Tyler Cowen tends to agree but thinks adopting an Asian-style culture involving “total parental commitment to the educational ideal and a willingness to enforce the notion that a non-educated child is shaming the entire family, not just the child” may be a key.

I’m not persuaded that there’s a problem here.  First off, while I’m having surprising difficulty finding the number of Americans in the 30-34 and 55-59 age cohorts so that we can see exactly what comparisons we’re making, it’s hardly shocking that more people in the latter cohort than the former have advanced degrees. After all, many people who get advanced degrees do so in their mid-30s and later.  This is especially true for MBAs, masters in education, journalism, and other mid-career credentialing degrees. Further, there’s relatively little expected mortality between ages 30 and 59, so there’s a cumulative effect.

Second, it’s not at all clear that having a masters or professional degree necessarily correlates to “human capital,” the thing Crook believes is being “tested.”  How much worse off as a country would we be, really, if we suffered a decline in people with graduate degrees from colleges of education?

All things being equal, it’s likely true that children of college educated parents are more likely to go on to college and that offspring of those with graduate degrees are more likely to pursue graduate degrees.  After all, they’re not only more likely to see those things as worthwhile goals but they’re likelier to have the intellectual aptitude for school and the money to afford it.  Not to mention having good nutrition, books in the house, be surrounded by people with good vocabularies, and so forth.

So what?  It’s not as if the existence of this thing called “college” is a big secret.  Nor is there much evidence that potential top drawer students are being shut out of the system.

More troubling is the apparent fact, cited by Crook, that the high school graduation rate “has been falling for 40 years.”  There just aren’t many jobs left that one can get without that level of schooling and still support yourself, let alone a family.  What the cause of this decline are, let alone what the solutions might be, is beyond my reckoning.

Photo: AP /Magnus Johansson-MaanIm via Sydney Morning Herald

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. spencer says:

    I suggest you look at the drop in high school graduates as a lagged function of the share of children in single parent families.

  2. Bithead says:

    Not even sure that’s valid, Spence.

    I submit that the one thing that comes as clear about all of this is that our definition of what constitutes ‘education” has changed over the last 60 years. As such and as a first effort, we’d better define “educated”. In short, define please, what we’re aiming for.

  3. Michael says:

    In 2006, Americans aged 55-59 collectively possessed more masters degrees, professional degrees and doctorates than Americans aged 30-34.”

    Collectively? Not proportionally? That a generation born during high birth rates has collectively more of anything than a generation born during low birth rates would surprise anybody is the real shocker here.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    I suspect that the most important factor is incentives. College educations are a major investment in time, money, and effort and jobs aren’t being created that justify the investment.

    For the last several years it’s been more prudent to find a job in the construction trades than to pursue a college degree.

    With the exception of health care salaries have been pretty flat in most technical fields for the last seven or eight years. In many of those years the number of jobs created for electrical engineers, for example, grew by nearly precisely the number of H1-B visas for electrical engineeers in that year.

    Health care degree programs (physicians, nursing, technicians) have waiting lists.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    Assuming the number of advanced degrees was really an issue, we could solve it almost over night by changing the immigration quotas. Get an advanced degree, come to the US. Degrees from the US go to the front of the line.

  6. John425 says:

    “…falling graduation rates.

    One significant factor is legal & illegal Third Worlders who have no desire to assimilate. The legal immigrant component then sees that the illegal immigrant component have taken all the entry-level jobs. This phenomenon is called being “Doubly Screwed”.

    The other component: inner city dropout youth (black or white) get tempted into illegal activities by the glamor of the gang-banger and drug cultures. This phenomenon is called “Screwing Yourself”.

    Neither the parents, nor the educators, nor the politicians see anything wrong with the above situations. This phenomenon is called “Screw it”.

  7. just me says:

    John I don’t think it is that the educators don’t see it as wrong, but teachers very quickly become frustrated and cynical when working in a district where parents don’t give a flip and the parents consider the school the free baby sitting service rather than an opportunity for education and betterment.

    I think one reason students don’t graduate is that they aren’t looking towards the future and school itself is becoming very “everyone needs to go to college” focused. If you have a student who doesn’t excel academically and they are in a school where non college options aren’t strongly provided and supported, the result is kids who don’t care about their educations now or in the future. They give up=school is a social opportunity and that is it.

    Not every kid is suitable for college. Some would be better suited in a vocational or technical program. I think high schools would do better to steer kids uninterested in college into suitable programs. Some schools are starting to head this direction again. My sister has a niece uninterested in school who will have her cosmotology certification when she graduates from high school.

  8. John425 says:

    just me: I certainly agree that not all kids are suitable for college. I am a product of the Boston Public School System (+-100 years ago). Then, there were two “tracks” one chose (or was steered to by teachers) College Prep or Trades.

    High Schools were actual training schools or as they are now called in Seattle -“magnet schools”. Boston English (lit/arts) Boston Tech (Technical arts-drafting, etc) Boston Commerce (Business) and then the so-called “trade” schools…East Boston High (automotive) Brighton High (automotive and metal works) and so on.
    As I look back on it it becomes obvious that certain high schools were actually Voc-Ed schools.

    Pretty slick. I went to Boston Tech High to be an architect- wound up with a BS in Pre-Med courtesy of the USAF. Go figure.

  9. Steve Plunk says:

    Dave Schuler hit a bullseye. With the cost of college rising out of control the return on investment for advanced degrees for the 30-34 group is less than it was for those in the 55-59 group. I would think especially for advanced degrees in social sciences, arts, and English.

    I doubt this has much to do with how we raise our kids or how high schools don’t prepare them well. By the time they are in college they will make their own choices and economics will play a large role.

  10. just me says:

    Steve I was addressing a comment made about graduation rates from high schools being lower.

    But I agree that return on investment is a huge infuence.

    When I got my MS degree almost 20 years ago it was less than $1,000 a semester. At the same institution it is somewhere in the $6,000 range. So a degree that was roughly $2,000 and very doable without the need for loans now costs about $24,000 and comes with a loan in addition to whatever was borrowed for the undergraduate degree.

    I imagine the 30-34 cohort is still paying off their undergraduate degrees and aren’t looking to take on more debt-especially since those in this cohort are also usually at the age when having kids has begun-not always a good time to take on debt and the responsibility of getting a degree.

  11. DL says:

    An archer can’t shoot too well with a cement arrow, nor can a top jockey win a Derby with a three legged mule.

    Perhaps,those of us who attended schools sent by parents who demanded nothing but our best, had a big advantage over todays TV and coarsened culture-raised kids, often with parents who are quick to blame the schools instead of supporting them. Having taught in both environments since 1962,I can say that things are not the same – politically driven agendas, broken homes, victim attitudes, my kid is perfect, unearned self esteem games, massive numbers of special education kids, ADHD, and on and on.

    Still, it does show hints of turning the corner now and then.

  12. just me says:

    DL I get frustrated with the “my kid is perfect” routine. I think that is one thing that has changed since I was in school. Now when a kid acts up a teacher gets to hear how it couldn’t have been junior that did it-or that junior never does that stuff at home so he couldn’t be doing it at school.

    Although I also think a lot of common sense has been taken out of the discipline codes as well. When I was in high school if you brought a water gun to school generally the worst thing that happened was a detention, usually the teacher just confiscated it and didn’t return it. Now it can get you suspended because it is a gun.

  13. jeff b says:

    The college education gap between current 30-somethings and their parents is troubling. It means that their parents really failed to pass along the educational capital that is part of the social contract between generations (you know, the one that says if you pass something to your kids, they’ll take care of you when you’re old.) When the 50-year-olds of today were in college, public colleges and universities were heavily funded by taxes. Today public funding for universities is less than one third what it was in 1970. The cost of education has shifted from society in general to the student individual. No wonder then that the economic returns are part of the student’s decision to skip college.

  14. Bithead says:

    A peek at Boortz this morning, by some serendipity or other, shows a different take on education, and one I alluded to earlier in this thread.