On Stagnating Wages for High School Graduates

In recent decades, incomes of high school graduates have been fairly stagnant, with the benefits of higher productivity appearing to go mostly to college graduates. One possible interpretation of this fact is that the educated elite are somehow siphoning off the benefits that rightly belong to the middle and lower classes.

However, I suggest that stagnation in wages for the non-college-educated is due at least in part to increased rates of college enrollment. In the last 30 years, the percentage of Americans 25 and over with at least a bachelor's degree has nearly doubled, from 15% to 29% (see this CSV file), while the percentage with no college education at all has fallen from 71% to 46%.

This has most likely had a cream-skimming effect. People with high school diplomas are not interchangeable--among the 71% of adults with no college education in 1977, there was a wide range of variation in intelligence, conscientiousness, and other qualities needed for academic and professional success. The marginal college graduates have been drawn disproportionately from the upper end of that distribution, pushing the median high school graduate with no college education down from the 53rd percentile in terms of educational attainment to the 30th percentile.

Furthermore the opposite effect has taken place on the other end of the scale. Since 1977, the percentage of Americans lacking a high school degree has fallen from 35% to 15% as aggressive social promotion and a stronger cultural emphasis on completing high school has pushed more marginal students in at the bottom of the high-school graduate pool.

Taking these two factors into account, it's no surprise that wages for high school graduates with no college education have failed to increase significantly in recent decades, but there's nothing sinister or ominous about this--it's just a statistical artifact of the way we classify people.

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