Education Slowdown Endangers the American Dream

A stunning article in The Wall Street Journal Thursday by David Wessel and Stephanie Banchero said  the educational gap between US children and their parents has narrowed dramatically.

“When baby boomers born in 1955 reached age 30, they had about two years more schooling than their parents, according to Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz…,” Wessel and Banchero wrote.

“In contrast, when Americans born in 1980 turned 30 in 2010, they averaged about eight months more schooling than their parents.”

This has pretty big implications, as the authors pointed out:

Without better educated Americans, economists say, the US won’t be able to maintain high-wage jobs and rising living standards in a competitive global economy. Increasingly, the goods and services in which the US has an edge rely more on the minds of American workers—than on their muscle.

Why? Higher education costs a lot more, and college students are taking on mountains of debt to pay for it only to find reduced job opportunities when they graduate. (President Obama tapped into that debt anxiety on his whistle stop tour of college campuses this week.)

President Obama speaks at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Official White House Photo: Chuck Kennedy

And many middle class parents can’t afford to send their kids to college because they’ve lost jobs, taken pay cuts, or even lost their homes as a result of the Great Recession.

College used to be a luxury—only 6% of Americans had bachelors’ degrees at the end of World War II. That number hit 30% in 2010, but the slope has gotten a lot flatter, indicating it’s peaking. The US trails 14 other developed countries in percentage of the population with a college degree, and as the Journal’s writers said, that puts us at a competitive disadvantage.

There are some other reasons, too, which people don’t like to talk about. When parents are successful, kids often have less motivation to push themselves. Poor educational achievements in minority communities probably depress the US average. And then there’s the idiotic pop culture of Jersey Shore and Jackass that makes morons look cool and nerds look, well, nerdy. (Never mind that they’re going to run the world when they grow up.)

Over the last century American history has encompassed a rising arc of wealth and power, culminating in our triumphant victory in World War II. Our top competitors were decimated by the war and after that we had nearly 30 unbroken years of global economic supremacy, coinciding with the rise of the baby boomers who attended college in record numbers during those years.

The thriving 1980s and 1990s kept it going for a while, but then in the 2000s things began to fall apart for many people. I believe the country will recover, but many won’t get back to where they were.

The baby boom generation may wind up to have been the peak of wealth and opportunity in American history, and our kids may well not top what we had. That’s OK, if they’re OK with it, but it means future generations could have lower expectations instead of grandiose dreams.







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