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Do You Need a Bachelor’s to Join the Middle Class? Notes from the AIR Seminar

On May 18, the American Institutes for Research held a lively seminar titled “Do You Need a Bachelor’s to Join the Middle Class?” as a part of its ‘Breakthroughs’ Series. The American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization which seeks to “conduct and apply the best behavioral and social science research and evaluation towards improving peoples’ lives, with a special emphasis on the disadvantaged.” The seminar included two researchers who study the role of higher education in today’s workforce and how this could be changed to better utilize human capital and expand equality of opportunity in the future. Mark Schneider, Ph.D., serves as a vice president and institute fellow at AIR, has authored several books and articles on education policy, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and was previously commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics from 2005 to 2008. Anthony Carnevale, Ph.D., is a research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, founded the Institute for Workplace Learning, and was appointed to serve on White House commissions under presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Bush (G.W.).

The underlying message of the seminar was that you do not, in fact, need a bachelor’s degree to earn middle class wages. Mark Schneider began by presenting data he had compiled on short-term and long-term wages for graduates of various higher education degree programs. Although these vary significantly from state to state, he found that those with an Associate’s degree earned $32,000 in their first year compared to $31,000 for those with a Bachelor’s. After five years, the greatest growth in average wages belonged to those with a Bachelor’s ($51,000), whose earnings surpassed those with an Associate’s ($45,000). However, Schneider went on to demonstrate that recipients of subbaccalaureate degrees and certifications in the applied sciences actually earned more on average than Bachelor’s graduates in the long term.

Anthony Carnevale noted that these averages hide the immense variation in earnings among these education groups, and that one’s field of study (and whether one works within this field after graduation) is far more important as a determinant of wages. Since just about 40 percent of a Bachelor’s education is devoted to one’s major field, this system is far less efficient than it would be without the general education courses that dominate 4-year Bachelor’s programs. Carnevale argued that this makes Bachelor’s programs both too long and too expensive. The tax-exempt status of traditional colleges and universities conceals the cost to taxpayers of having such an expensive education system; Stanford University, for example, owns $8 billion in tax-free property assets within Santa Clara County in addition to the untaxable revenue it receives in the form of tuition.

The presenters agreed that the high cost and inefficiency of the American higher education system have produced self-perpetuating socioeconomic stratification as higher education has become a greater determinant of wage outcomes since the 1970s. They concluded that equality of educational opportunity (and career opportunity, by extension) is impossible without greater academic efficiency.

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