George HW Bush won 62% of college graduates in 1988. Trump in 2020 won only 42%, but that’s just part of the story. Decades ago, college graduates were such a niche portion of the electorate that the statistic wasn’t even polled until 1988. Now they are a huge electoral bloc and an even more dominant element of our economy. America’s political divide is increasingly an educational divide.
About 4% of Americans born in 1900 would obtain a college degree. That figure rose to 24% for those born in 1950. This year nearly three quarters of new high school graduates will start college. That’s up from 63% in 2000, well on its way to becoming a ubiquitous experience.
This has happened before. High school was an invention of the Progressive Era. Outside the Northeast, very few Americans completed a secondary education in 1910. An aggressive movement to develop free public high schools was launched between 1910-40, seeing attendance stats, at least for the earlier grades, rise to 70% by 1940. Still, America didn’t see fully half its high school students graduate until the 1970’s. Today, high school graduation rates hover around 90%.
College education is on an arc to follow secondary school toward becoming a fundamental qualification for life. College attendance is almost as common among people under 24 as having a drivers’ license.
Whites without a college education have always been the most dominant bloc in US politics. In 2012 they were less than a majority of the electorate for the first time. In 2020, they constituted only 44% of voters. Republican gains among Hispanic voters in 2020 were almost entirely from those without a college education.
The US isn’t alone in developing mass tertiary education, but the phenomenon is strongest in the Anglophone countries and the Pacific Rim. Ireland, UK, Australia and Canada see half or more of its young people get either a two or four-year degree. Nearly two thirds receive a degree in Japan and South Korea. Numbers are much lower in Germany, where large numbers of young people are channeled into the country’s well-developed industrial tech career paths.
A century of increasing life expectancy for Americans began to reverse almost a decade ago, but only for non-college educated whites. In 2014, US life expectancy peaked at 78.9 years and has been declining. Almost all increases in life expectancy since 1990 have accrued to the college educated.
Our decline in life expectancy has been driven almost entirely by what’s been called “deaths of despair,” suicides and substance abuse deaths among less educated whites. As recently as 2017, suicide rates in rural counties were nearly double the level in cities, having risen by 53% since 1999.
Almost 90% of college graduates live in urban counties, and more than 60% live in cities with a population over a million.
In 1980, average wealth of households with or without a college degree was roughly equal. In the decades since, average wealth of households with a college education has increased by 300%, compared to about 25% for non-college households. Unemployment rates for those without a college degree run consistently double the rate for college graduates. Average lifetime earnings for college graduates are about 75% higher than their non-college peers and steadily increasing.
Is there a causal link between a college education and a healthier, more prosperous life? This seems likely, but there’s also a strong correlation between college graduation and birth privilege. Teasing these two factors apart is difficult. Those most likely to earn a college degree are those born to a college-educated mother. Regardless of talent, intellect or drive, completing college is difficult for those who lack the wealth or family background to make higher education a presumption.
For those from less privileged backgrounds who do complete college, the experience does appear to be a strong tailwind toward financial success. A college education does deliver a substantial lift in life outcomes for people coming from poor or modest backgrounds across all races. College is in many ways a proxy for class, but it delivers powerful tools and traits that are rewarded in our economy.
What does all of this mean?
Most of the wealth, and therefore most of the power being generated in our knowledge economy is flowing to those with a college education. Their interests and preferences differ starkly from their less educated peers. Whites without a college degree used to decide our elections. Now they make up less than half the electorate and their numbers are dwindling rapidly.
It’s hard to imagine any solution to our acrimonious and increasingly violent political divisions that doesn’t address the college divide. While this division in our culture festers, it threatens to undermine Democrats’ efforts at building a multi-racial coalition, as less educated Hispanics and other immigrants leak away toward the GOP.
We need to understand why higher education has come to represent such a deep fault-line in our culture. Differences in income or employment don’t account for this gap. There’s something else, more fundamental to the college experience, that accounts for this profound difference in outlook. That difference will be hard to bridge.