The State of Young America: Millennials Need More Expensive Education to Succeed


What is the state of young people today? We know they aren't very interested in traditional politics, that they have given up on a lot of the culture wars, and that they are less employed than preceding generations. However, there is a lot more to say about what factors will put our generation on a different path than those previous. 

In the interest of taking this deep step, the think-tank Demos has teamed up with the youth-oriented research group the Young Invincibles to deliver a thorough report on the situation of this generation. Below is a summary of some of the most consequential findings, along with a rough conclusion: Young people are getting more educated, which is good because they really need to, but hard because of unemployment and the rising costs of college.

Young people are getting more educated (pg. 23). Not only has the percentage of the young population that has completed college increased markedly, but the percentage of high school dropouts has decreased, as well as the percentage of young people with only a high school degree. These numbers, thankfully, are not just driven by gains in well-protected groups. African-Americans, women, and Hispanics have all seen large increases in their collegiate populations. All told, young people have shifted, at all levels, to be more educated than other age cohorts.

More education is critical, because it's the only way to make money (pg. 11-13). Since 1980, young people without a bachelor's or associate's degree have seen their wages fall precipitously. For instance, the median earnings of a young person who only has a high school degree is just 75% of what it was in 1980. By contrast, median earnings for those young people with a college degree went up in the same time frame (and of course median earnings for college grads have always been higher than those for people without a degree). The gains are a little deceptive though, because they were enjoyed almost completely by women. The median earnings of a young man is almost identical to the median earnings of a young man in 1980. Women, on the other hand, have entered the work force and attended college more than ever before, and their degrees are worth more, too. Education, not race or sex, may be the great divider for our generation. 

With the increased importance of a college degree, the increasing tuition costs are all the more painful (pg. 26). College costs were stable in the 1970s, but since 1980 the average total cost of college to students has tripled. Some people argue that this is because of the subsidization of higher education, which raises demand, which in turn raises the price of college. This explanation fails though – something else must be at work. Consider the fact that maximum Pell grant awards as a percentage of tuition have fallen since 1980 even as tuition has risen. Also, Professors Robert Archibald and David Feldman, economists at William and Mary argue that higher education costs display constant returns to scale so that educating more students wouldn't raise the per-student cost of education. Instead, some other factor is responsible for exploding tuition costs, a phenomenon which is a steep obstacle for achieving opportunity for all young people.

What are the consequences of these changes for millennials? What type of generation will we be after we gain a greater economic and social stake in American society? It seems in some ways that we will be more equal. Women make 90% of what men make (it was 69% in 1980) and more and more people are going to college, despite its precipitous rise in price. Other signs are more ominous. Even as economics pushes (squeezes) us closer together along some dimensions, we are at risk of losing a simple, broad, concern for others. This study for example, shows that the empathy scores of college students drops precipitously starting in 2000. Could it be that social media, the internet, and the challenges of being young have conspired to isolate us in some ways even as it has united us in others? I wonder.

All told, I think the consequences of the 2008 recession are many. In some ways, it has increased grit and determination, and in others, it has potentially made us more fragile and desperate.  

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon