Educational attainment and income: what we know and what we need to know

by Ryan Streeter on September 26, 2013. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

This Pew Research post shines an important light on educational attainment’s relationship to income in two ways.

It’s been clear for awhile that the returns to a college degree have grown substantially compared to not having a degree in the past few decades. For the first time ever, households headed by someone with a college degree account for a majority of U.S. income. The following graph portrays this visually:

Screen Shot 2013-09-26 at 9.00.06 AM

That’s the first point. The second is less explicit in the text: the absence of fully accounting for associates degrees and other certifications that sit somewhere between a high school diploma and a college degree short-changes our appreciation for the value of those degrees. The Pew post notes elsewhere that average income for associates degree holders has dropped over the past 20 years, but we also know that 2-year degrees in technical, science, and engineering fields often result in higher incomes than those of average college degree holders.

We’re at a point in the post-recession, college bubble era where we need to more clearly disaggregate types of degrees at each level of educational attainment to get a better sense of how learning and qualifications impact earnings over time. We should have similar graphs as the one above showing income by the field of study rather than just the degree level.

Today, a two-year degree in robotics or electrical engineering is going to go a lot farther in the marketplace than a college degree in French literature (and I say that as someone who chose to get a philosophy degree).

(PS – and, let us not forgot, we philosophy majors have fared better than biologists and other scientists!)