Education and Wealth Differences: Only Part of the Story

The fact that education is connected to wealth is pretty well known. It’s an established part of standard political dialogue. People who go to college earn more. As President Barack Obama said back in 2010,

It’s an economic issue when the unemployment rate for folks who’ve never gone to college is almost double what it is for those who have gone to college. Education is an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training or a higher education by the end of this decade. Education is an economic issue when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today, they will out-compete us tomorrow.

According to a new piece over at Pacific Standard, however, the actual connection between wealth and education is a little murky, however.

Sure more education means more income, but education differences really only explain a little bit of the country’s wealth gap:

In 2013, households headed by those 40 or up without a high school diploma had a median net worth of $37,766. That’s 44 percent less than their peers in 1989 (adjusted for inflation). Households headed by somebody with a high school diploma had a median net worth of $95,072, which is 36 percent less than high school diploma-holding households in 1989. By contrast, the median net worth of households headed by somebody with a two- or four-year degree didn’t change much between 1989 and 2013; it’s now $273,488, just three percent more than it was in 1989. Meanwhile, the median worth for a household headed by somebody with a degree beyond a Bachelor’s was $689,1000, 45 percent more than their 1989 counterparts.

That matters, sure, but it’s not really what we should call a dramatic shit due to education

Education helps people make more money only to an extent; there are many other factors. One piece of evidence to support that notion: the relatively small changes in income experienced by different education brackets since 1989. Families headed by someone without a college degree earn less now than they did three decades ago, but the decline in median income is five percent or less. Similarly, families headed by someone with a graduate degree earn just four percent more than their 1989 counterparts. Households with a two- or four-year degree took the biggest hit, making a median income that’s 16 percent lower than it was in 1989.

But the wealth gap is a lot wider? What’s going on here? Well different people have tried to express the same question a few different ways. But as I pointed out last month when confronting questions about how to reduce inequality, what’s really going on here is that the changing wealth distribution isn’t really about the difference in the earnings of college graduates and high-school graduates;” it’s about the amount of money held by the top .01 percent.

College basically the dividing line between American professionals and everyone else. It’s the line between the working and middle classes. But it’s actually pretty bad economically to be merely middle class today.

Real inequality isn’t about the difference between a working stiff and someone with the professional; it’s about the difference between the plutocracy and everyone else. And that’s what really going on here when we say “education helps people make more money only to an extent.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer