By and large, in recent years the upper income groups have collected most of the profits from economic growth while everyone else has lived with stagnant incomes. How much effect in monetary terms has that monopolization of growth had? According to one calculation, if the top one-percent still received the same share of income that they received in 1979, then every other family could have received a cheque for $7,105.
However, compare this with another form of inequality. If incomes have stagnated for most people, so has educational attainment. In 1900, about 11 percent of Americans aged 14 to 17 attended high school. By 1950, 75 percent of that age group attended high school. That was about double the European rate. The G.I. Bill (1944) carried the American lead forward into college education by financing college education for veterans (among other things). Then something started to go wrong in the 1970s. Male graduation rates for four-year colleges began to decline. Essentially, women have taken up the slack in educational attainment. Unfortunately, this coincided with the decline in heavy industry that paid good wages for people without a college education.
The educational differential both is and isn’t generational. Of Americans born between 1950 and 1959, 42 percent have a college degree. Of Americans born between 1980 and 1989, 44 percent have a college degree. However, only 30 percent of Americans reach a higher level of education than did their parents. Among 25-34 year-olds, 20 percent of men and 27 percent of women have made the big jump from parents who didn’t finish high school to having a college degree.
The differential is linked to social class. From the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, college graduation rates for those in the top 25 percent of income groups rose from 36 percent to 54 percent; rates for those in the bottom 25 percent rose only from 5 percent to 9 percent. Between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, college attendance rates for people from the top 25 percent of income groups rose to be 15 to 25 percent higher than for those in the bottom 25 percent.
Why do these figures matter? They matter because, on average, Americans with a college degree are paid 74 percent more than those with only a high school degree. Between 1979 and 2012, the difference between the incomes of families headed by college graduates and families headed by high-school graduates grew by $30,000.
Education isn’t working as a vehicle for social mobility. It is starting to do the opposite.
The causes of this stagnation are complex. For one thing, middle class students go to much better schools than do lower class students. The middle class students come out less unprepared for college than do lower class students, usually markedly less unprepared. For another thing, college costs more in the United States than it does most places, and cuts in already inadequate support for public colleges have thrown even more of a burden on families.
If you think that a BA or more makes for a highly skilled work force, then expanding the percentage of Americans who are college graduates is vital for improving the quality of the American work force. If you think that international competitiveness in a globalized economy is vital for American prosperity, then improving the quality of the American labor force is essential.
Which of these two forms of inequality is worse for the country? This isn’t an attempt to divert attention from one form of inequality on behalf of the “one-percent.” It is an effort to get people to pay attention to complex fundamental problems.
 Eduardo Porter, “”Equation Is Simple: Education = Income,” NYT, 11 September 2014.