I return in today's post to a subject on which I have commented in the past, and which continues to interest me, namely the distribution of educational credentials in the American population, and the implications of that distribution for American politics. As always, I shall try to make connections between my own experience and larger social trends.
My father attended Boy's High School in Manhattan, achieving a grade average of 65 [a fact which, when I discovered it as an adult, gave me a good deal of retrospective satisfaction, inasmuch as my sister and I had been under considerable pressure to get high grades.] In 1919, when he graduated from Boy's High [after being suspended for a bit for making inflammatory political speeches], roughly 12-15% of his age cohort earned a high school diploma. In 1923, when he earned a Bachelor's Degree from City College, only a tiny fraction of his age group [perhaps 2-3%] rose to that level of educational attainment.
By the time I graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1950, well over half of my age mates were earning high school diplomas, but when I received my Bachelor's Degree three years later, even though a generation had passed since my father's days at CCNY, it was still the case that only about one in twelve Americans twenty-five or older held a first college degree. Everyone I knew was going to college, so it simply never occurred to me that I and my fellow college students were, in American society, very rare birds indeed.
The G. I. Bill and the explosive post-war growth of public institutions of higher education are usually credited with dramatically changing the educational landscape in America, and so they did. By 1970, the cohort of Americans 25 to 29 years of age holding a first college degree had tripled, and by the late 1970's the number of young Americans who had completed a college degree was five times what it had been at the end of the Second World War.
The impression soon became widespread that college was the new normal. There was obsessive public attention to the growing difficulty of gaining admission to the elite colleges and universities, but it was more or less taken for granted that everyone who had the slightest interest in doing so could get some sort of college degree. [Once again, my personal experience throws light on the changes taking place. When I applied to Harvard College in 1950, somewhat more than 1900 young men made application. Of those 1900, 1650 were admitted, and 1250 actually showed up in September to enroll. Your chances nowadays of getting into UMass Amherst are very considerably worse.]
However, a look at the statistics for 2011, the most recent available, give us a very different picture. Briefly, 87.58% of Americans 25 and older were, in 2011, high school graduates. Roughly 57% of that same group had some post-secondary education. But only a bit more than 30% held Bachelor's Degrees. This is, of course, a dramatic change from the situation when I attended college -- a six-fold increase. But it remains true today that seven in ten adult Americans do not hold college degrees. Note, by the way, that the 57% of adults who have had some post-secondary education include those who have taken a single course at a local Community College.
You might think that this statistic is in a way misleading, because of the unusually high percentage of older Americans who do not have a college degree, but that is not the case. The percentage of Americans 25 to 29 holding college degrees is only 32%, barely higher than the percentage for the adult population as a whole.
Simply inverting the statistics gives us an insight into the American population that is radically at odds with the common impression created by the discourse in the public media. Almost seven in ten adult Americans do not have a college degree, and more than four in ten have never taken so much as a single course beyond high school. Let me repeat what I wrote earlier, in order to emphasize what I consider to be an extremely important fact about American society. A college degree is required in America for a wide range of jobs that no one in the media would consider elite, and indeed which the people who offer commentary on talk shows would not dream of taking themselves.
You need a college degree to be a high school teacher. You need a college degree to be an elementary school teacher. You need a college degree to be a management trainee, to be a staff psychologist in a corporation, to be a Walmart store manager, to be an FBI agent [indeed, you pretty well need a law degree for that job]. This means that seventy percent of Americans cannot even aspire to be grade school teachers!
Think about these simple facts in relation to the two-part Meditation that I have posted in the past few days. If we on the left are serious about working to move American society in a progressive direction, then we need to start not on college campuses but in the workplaces and even, though I cringe to say it, in the churches of this country. We need to devise organizing methods and policy proposals the aim at the seventy percent rather than at some sub-segment of the thirty percent.
I would welcome comments from readers about how we might go about doing this.