A Tale of Two Gaps: Why we should really care about education and the labor market

An article in today’s Los Angeles Times proclaims: “Not since the 1970s have workers with bachelor’s degrees seen a prolonged slump in earnings during a time of economic growth.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, college graduates earned an average of $51,206 last year, whereas high school graduates earned $27,915 and those with no high school diploma earned $18,734.

The average annual wages of college graduates fell during the economic recovery; those of high school graduates rose. Figures are adjusted for inflation:”

Four-year college graduates High school graduates
2000: $54,396 2000: $28,179
2004: $51,568 2004: $28,631
Percent change: Down 5.2% Percent change: Up 1.6%

Gaps in wages between people of different education levels should alone spark public debate. But in the game of relating education and the job market, there’s a more important—yet less discussed—gap to consider.

An annual UCLA survey of college freshman from 7 years ago found that “a record-breaking 30.2 percent of freshmen feel ‘frequently overwhelmed by all I have to do.’ That compares with 29.6 percent in 1998 and continues an upward trend in freshman stress levels that began in 1985, when only 16 percent of survey respondents reported feeling stressed.” A few months ago, the Buffalo News reported how similar trends extend well into high school. With my high school and college years behind me, but still fresh enough in mind, I can personally remember how students constantly stressed about the “next thing”—exams, papers, applications, deadlines—without much considering how it all might relate to future income. “But that’s not what school’s about,” many say. And perhaps that’s the tip of a bigger, more problematic iceberg.

Though stress is not endemic to education—it’s something we all share in common through different stages of our lives—it can become an indicator of a weakening system. Ever-rising levels of stress in marriages, jobs, space shuttle designs, and schools all share something in common: a need for re-evaluation. By the time the educational snowball rolls from kindergarten to college graduation it carries a massive amount of momentum (17 consecutive years of formal education, for most students).

One would expect that at the culmination of such a development, universities would focus strongly on bridging the transition between the academic world and the working world. I’m not talking about career counseling. I’m talking about designing curricula, requirements, and classes while heeding the question, “Why are students going to college?”

Students spend overwhelming time and energy stressing over their academic lives, only to find that most of their efforts don’t even apply to their post-college jobs. “I’ll never use this in the real world” is a frequently-heard complaint on campus. Universities need to do better at aligning their goals with those of students’ post-graduation lives.

But academia is not solely at fault for the educational goal gap. Ask a recent graduate how her job—the one with a required bachelor’s degree—relates to that very degree. Let me know if you find a good answer. (I still haven’t, and I’ve asked a lot.) Everyone knows that an education is a credential; the danger is that so many students-come-workers cynically view it only as such. When college starts to boil down to a diploma that you need to increase your average lifetime income, you start to wonder what thousands of college students think they’re actually doing in the ivory tower.

The gap beyond wages—the one that demands at least as much openness and debate—is the educational goal gap. What are the goals of the suppliers and demanders of higher education, and are they aligned? Why should students go, and how should colleges serve them? It’s not a discussion to replace that of income. Rather, it should be considered in light of education’s role in the labor market. And not as a matter of academic obscurity. Millions of stressed-out, overworked, underpaid, and unfocused students and graduates tell us we’re in need of re-evaluation.