College graduates earned 56% more on average than high school grads in 2015, according to recent reports by the Economic Policy Institute. This is an increase of 51% in 1999 and is the largest increase since the EPI began tracking this data in 1973. College graduates were also employed at a higher rate to begin with (83%) than high school grads (66%).
It used to be that a person could drop out of high school and get honest work that paid enough to start a family with. Things changed slowly, and businesses operated using landline telephones and the mail. People expected to be in their line of work for a lifetime. Society had a need for people to do work that doesn’t exist as an occupation in today’s high tech, self-serve environment.
For example, there was a time when even an elevator required a trained professional operator (see Why Elevator Operators Went Extinct ) But improved technology eliminated that job, and the elevator operators had to look for other work. Most parents today know what steno was – but our kids don’t because dictation is dead thanks to word processing. Kids also don’t plan to be travel agents anymore – there are still a few, but they mostly operate at the luxury end of the market. Will cab drivers be next thanks to driverless cars? Or is Uber already making full time driving as a profession obsolete?
But the wage disparity didn’t start with the iphone or the internet. According to the EPI, a large gap in wages goes back to 1979. The average of the bottom 90% of American workers by income was $28,559. By 2015, it only averaged $34,481 (about 22% higher, 36 years later). The top 5% of wage earners averaged $142,817 in 1979 and by 2015 were earning, on average, $287,983 – more than doubling during the same time period. As more of the simplest jobs become automated and technology changes, there will be more need for educated workers such as computer programmers and healthcare specialists.
All signs point to the importance of a college education in the 21st century. To be sure, there will always be some jobs that don’t require one. But as the simplest jobs become automated, there will be fewer to be had. The only thing that seems certain is that today’s kids will need a solid foundation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math) along with a college education, to achieve the American Dream.