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We Forget How Quickly College Became the Norm

We Forget How Quickly College Became the Norm

President Obama’s 2009 State of the Union Address laid out ambitious goals for higher education built around this stark assessment, “Every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.” By that time, the US had already experienced a decades-long revolution in higher education, based on a universal, non-partisan recognition that knowledge is power and an educated public is an economic and national security imperative. The notion that higher education was essential was still tough for some people to accept. For many white people listening to that speech, the messenger was part of the message.

Having a Black leader who was plainly smarter, better educated and more successful than them created racial strains. For that President to point at them through their magic TV tube and tell them that their kids and grandkids needed to be more like him than like them – that about ripped it.

After three decades of growth in the percentage of high school graduates going on to higher education, that trend peaked in 2010 at 70%. Senator Rick Santorum made opposition to Obama’s college programs the centerpiece of his 2012 Presidential campaign, calling the President a “snob” and deriding colleges as “indoctrination mills.” The Trump years saw the expansion of college attendance stall and then crash during the pandemic back to 61%, the level we had reached in the mid-90’s.

Considering the scale of the 20th century revolution in education, it’s remarkable it progressed as far as it did before meeting serious partisan resistance. A transformation of this speed and scale creates damage, even if the overall goal is worth the pain. Until the Trump Era we largely overlooked the impact of the shift toward ubiquitous higher education, hardly even noticing the change. Reaching the point that most young people expect to continue their education past high school may have been the easy part. Protecting democracy from the backlash against the education divide may be more difficult than anyone anticipated.    

We often miss the speed of the college revolution because to a large extent it has hidden behind a data challenge. To see this revolution, we have to look in two places at once. First, there’s aggregate population data, things like this percentage of the overall population or the overall portion of voters who have a college education. Aggregate data is where we’re most likely to look and it shows that even today, college educated voters are a minority of the electorate, roughly 43%. However, that’s up from 37% in 2016 and 39% in 2020. It was only 15% in 1980. 

As stark as the shift may seem at the aggregate level, it fails to capture the massive recent shift in young-people’s expectations around education and life outcomes. Strip away the experiences of Boomers and older immigrants from the college attainment data and a much more powerful shift emerges. 

To capture the speed and power of this shift toward ubiquitous college education, we have to look at data broken down by generation. A 1957 Census report found that only 10% of adult Americans had a high school diploma. That same report showed the beginnings of the college movement. Thanks in large part to the GI Bill, about 13% of men in the 24-35 age group had attended college, the beginnings of our shift toward ubiquitous education.  

Still, by 1980 barely 20% of Americans aged 20-24 were enrolled in any kind of education, though by then almost 70% of young people were at least earning a high school diploma. By the end of the Obama Administration, a record 90% of young people were completing their high school education and 70% of them were enrolling in college

Looking at the experiences of younger Americans, you see a transformation in the expectation of higher education that looks like this:

What you see in that graphic is a yawning generational gap with significant race and class implications. White people today at age 70 were graduating from high school at a time when a minority of them had any expectation of higher education. Very few of them came from parents with a college degree. Very few people in their communities had a college degree.

Their grandchildren came of age in an economy in which there appeared few options for survival without a college education. Two thirds of their peers were going on to college directly from high school. Many more found their way into higher education after time in the military or the workforce. These generations are living in different countries, with different political needs and different values.  

That leaves us with an electorate in which, thanks to a very large older age cohort, only a minority of voters has a college education. It’s also an electorate in which younger Americans see few paths to a productive life without access to some form of higher education. This generation gap may be the largest and angriest in our history. A white Republican backlash against higher education won’t heal that divide. It will only make it harder for young people to find their way to a stable life.


  1. Phillip, your argument of how good the ROI on college education is completely exposes Biden’s transparent transfer of taxpayer’s future liability in order to, “buy tens of millions of votes”. You can’t claim a degree “pays for itself” and claim people who didn’t take out the loans, “need to pay for them”.

    1. First of all, I’m not sure why “need to pay for them” is in quotes. I never made such a claim. I also don’t know who you’re quoting with “buy[ing] tens of millions of votes”. Biden has never said such a thing. I’m not aware of any politician– Democrat or Republican who has made such a comment. Doing this isn’t buying votes any more so than Reagan slashing taxes and then running a deficit; or FDR paying farmers to burn crop; or Truman sending GIs off to college. The government is a consumer in the economy, too. It’s a producer, an employer, a spender, a borrower, a lender– all of it. In fact, it’s the largest such consumer. It’s the world’s biggest trillionaire. Part of the job of politicians is to figure out how to best raise and spend the money the government takes in. Part of the GOP’s problem in recent years is that it’s been wholly unrealistic, on this matter, because they categorically reject the premise that governments spend and raise money. Indeed, such a position is akin to rejecting gravity.

      My point with the loans is the exact opposite of the point you seem to attribute to me. My point wasn’t that people who didn’t take out loans should pay everyone else’s. My point was that the people who took out loans and now have college degrees are not only in their prime earning years, they’re the ones driving the economy! The people who didn’t take out loans and who are living paycheck to paycheck don’t spend much. They don’t borrow much. They don’t save much. They don’t invest. And many are what Mitt Romney referred to when he said 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes. To be sure, Mitt was wrong– of course those people pay taxes. But compared to the cohort who took out loans and have good jobs, and are in prime earning years, the people Mitt was referring to pay substantially less in taxes. In other words, those people aren’t driving revenue– the “good job Millennials” are with their volume of consumption. It’s for this reason that the loan forgiveness largely pays for itself. Forgiving a few tens of thousands of dollars in loans so that a Millennial can take out a few hundred more in a home mortgage is good business. The latter transaction generates a lot more money for the economy than the former. It also puts the borrower in a better position, long term. This is what I mean when I say it pays for itself.

      I’d also add, the doctor with the six figure loan– yeah, that isn’t what Biden is forgiving.

      1. I’m chuckling that since no politician has admitted they were “buying votes” that it isn’t exactly what they were doing. You continue to praise the higher incomes while ignoring how that refutes Biden’s recently SCOTUS blocked orders. It is almost as humorous as the claim that a bloated Federal Government is beneficial to a nation or that college enrollment decline is another one of the current, “Threats to Democracy!” “Long live Statism!”

      1. The two biggest spikes in college enrollment are the early ’10s and early ’80s….right about the time of the two deepest recessions of the last 50 years. That isn’t a coincidence. If anything, recessions cause college enrollment to tick up a bit– students in school find ways to stay there, and unemployed and underemployed go back to school to retrain.

        I have no idea why, in an economy where a college degree guarantees you a place at the start line, Republicans are content to sabotage their own children by placing them behind the 8-ball; why they would ever want to place their children and grandchildren at such a disadvantage. Why they would make college worse. Why they would defund public schools to send their children to scammy charter schools. Everyone else is racing to acquire knowledge and skill, and they’re raising unemployable losers.

        That really baffles me.

      2. I think you’ll find that demographically the Baby Boom peaked in 1957, meaning that the surge of college aged students occurred in the late 70’s just AFTER the draft ended. The “sudden decline was likely caused much more by the drop in college aged High school graduates than the ending of the draft. (look up the number of births after 1962 when the “pill” became commonly used). The increase in the 1980’s & 2010’s easily could be due to recession, but that doesn’t explain the current drop. When half the college graduates are not employed in jobs that required a degree in their field, it is a strong likelihood that more and more no longer the degree’s cost’s ROI is worthwhile. The fact that Biden continues to buy votes with Supreme Court banned Student Loan debt “forgiveness” (it is actually just throw on to the skyrocketing Federal debt) shows just how the R.O.I. has not been worth it.

      3. A couple of points:
        1. The ROI is worth it. College grads have half the unemployment rate of people who don’t have a college degree. Right now, college grads’ unemployment is in the 1-2% range. College grads also earn up to twice the salary as non-grads. They have many times the net worth of non-grads. And that’s even with the student debt. At worst, most student debt is nothing more than taking out a mortgage on a career. Even at $1,000/month student debt is worth it if it means a career that’ll eventually pay in excess of $100,000 a year. Or even half that figure– remember that “blue collar” jobs are often that– jobs, not careers.

        2. College degree careers are MUCH more portable– both to other cities and within a city.

        3. Student debt forgiveness pays for itself. Erase some of that burden– especially when it was at the low interest rates of the ’00s and ’10s– and it frees up money for Millennials and Gen Zs to spend on other items like houses and cars. That’s not adding onto the debt so much as it is the government moving its own money.

        4. Half of college grads not employed in their field….so what? I’m such a person. My field is biology. I’m a lawyer. So is my wife. She’s a film major, who practices medicine. I have no idea what “field” comms majors go into, but I know many of them who do things like advertising. They don’t write copy– they buy and sell ads. That’s the thing about college– it doesn’t teach you a trade, so much as it teaches you a means of acquiring a skill.

        5. As for the decline, the drop in births is part of it, but the percentage ticked down, too. You saw the same thing around 2010. And yes, the Millennials are a bigger generation than Gen Z, but again, the percentage also ticked up– and continued to tick up even as overall enrollment stagnated. I think most of the drop that occurred around 2020 is attributable to Covid more so than grads not finding jobs. The latter just doesn’t happen when unemployment is in the 3s.

        I attribute the drop to three things:
        a) For disabled and immunocompromised students, Covid made college prohibitive. I do think those individuals will slowly work their way back. But those people were the first to leave and will likely be the last to return.
        b) For many students whose economic situation was marginal, many had to rethink college. One who went away likely had to either take some time off, or pick a school closer to home. I do think in time most of these students will return, and you’re already starting to see some of it.
        c) As Chris points out, Republicans are dropping out of society. It’s not just college. They’re homeschooling, as well. These are also some of the biggest “work from home” proponents. Sure, Millennial parents love it b/c it allows them freedom to be with their kids, but most of them are starting to come back. The ones who are staying behind are the ones who don’t want to go to DEI training and be members of a more diverse workforce. And this isn’t good. Withdrawing from life is not good.

  2. I just recently turn 71. I saw the need for higher education in high school. Pushed my children and grandchildren to pursue it. Very much for government provided post High School education. I most likely am an exception. But we do exist. You need life long education today to make it. Employment even in the same job title is constantly changing needing new knowledge and skills. An example is electrician. If you work in an industrial setting you also need to know programming.

    I think Trump and his MAGA movement was a backlash to Obama. The new generation grew up being a majority minority in their cohort. They fail to see the issue with Obama or a multi ethic cultural Democracy. I really think the old Confederacy is on it’s deathbed and thrashing against the inevitable. We just got to fight the off it for another 10 years. To understand our history and current events you have to understand the culture the old south had. Very much in the mold of feudalism. BTW good to hear from you again.

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