Education & Real Wages

I have a master’s degree and 15 years of professional work experience in the consulting and non-profit sectors. My younger brother has a two-year degree and eight years of hands-on experience in industrial and mechanical jobs. I’m pretty sure he has made more money than me since the day he started working full-time. I definitely know he makes more money than me now. He is currently a technician at a sheet metal fabricator in NH.

Not that I care much about money. Obviously. I’ve dedicated my career thus far mostly to the non-profit sector (and I married a musician). But still, it sometimes makes me wonder what I could have done if I had gone after a different kind of training and been less romantic about my career. My dad is an electrician and my mother operated her own hair salon out of the front room of our house, so to me, going to college and working an office job was kind of like a fairy tale. No one ever suggested that I could do really well for myself if I didn’t spend all that time and money in school.

Yesterday, I was looking at some statistics on real wages (inflation adjusted) over time for 25 to 34 year olds based on educational attainment in the US. These are found in the 2011 National Condition of Education report put out by the US Department of Education (I’m looking at Table A-17-1 on page 210). [Thanks to my friend Eric Garland for his recent blog post on this topic, albeit with a very different twist.]

The data clearly show that real wages have declined over the past 30 years for young people with only a high school diploma, which wasn’t really shocking to me. The numbers also show that young people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees make more money now than they did 30 years ago – again not really a surprise. What’s shocking is that they only make a few thousand dollars more per year than they did in 1980, and that’s adjusted for inflation.

Let me repeat that! Only. A Few. Thousand. Dollars. $3,100 – that’s it! How much did your degree(s) cost you? Want to see what’s happened to college tuition over the last 30 years? Ouch

My advice to high school students: don’t go off to a four-year college just because you have this romantic notion in your head about what that experience will do for you. Understand what you are committing to and what your prospects and financial obligations will be after college. I wish someone had explained all this to me when I was in high school. I might not have listened, but still, no one gave me any facts at all! No one showed me what types of jobs were in demand, what they pay, what the return on investment might be for my college education. Nothing. I made my college decision based purely on fantasy. I’m glad there are programs like the Huot Technical Center here in the Lakes Region to help kids figure this stuff out before they graduate from high school.