Here’s the good news: Young adults who have finished college continue to earn significantly more than mere high school graduates.And then there's the fact that earnings for college graduates aged 25-34 have fallen some 15 percent since 2000.
The gap between the median earnings of high school graduates and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher – the red versus the purple lines in the graphs above – remains wide. The difference, over a lifetime, is more than enough to justify the expense of attaining a bachelor’s degree.
Here’s the bad news: Adjusted for inflation, median earnings for young men with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2011 were significantly lower than they were in 1971. Young women have slightly improved their position (by $630) since 1971. But as a comparison between the two graphs shows, their median is still lower than that of male high school graduates in 1971.
As Folbre notes: "Does anyone seriously believe that college graduates today are less skilled or less productive than they were in 1971?"
Behind this are many factors, but a key one is globalization, that race to the bottom that pits Americans with a college education against those in China or India who will work for wages that are only a fraction of those in the industrially developed nations. There are apologists who claim that this situation inevitable, that it is the natural order and that the solution is for college freshmen to give themselves a better chance at higher earnings by choosing the right major, preferably science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Industry claims that it can't find enough graduates with the right degrees, which is the excuse corporations deploy to justify lobbying for more guestworkers.
As a consequence, American students who choose "the right major" find that is no guarantee they will earn more because nearly half the jobs in those fields are being filled by guestworkers. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found:
• IT workers earn the same today as they did, generally, 14 years agoWe have jobs flowing overseas, we have guestworkers filling up to half the good jobs and, nearly four-and-a-half years after the Great Recession, we have a wretched recovery in which the median wage is still $1,000 below what it was in 2007, when that recession began. Meanwhile, a third of college graduates are working in fields that don't require a college education of any kind, much less one in STEM.
• Currently, only one of every two STEM college graduates is hired into a STEM job each year
• Policies that expand the supply of guestworkers will discourage U.S. students from going into STEM, and into IT in particular [...]
Despite a steady supply of U.S. STEM graduates, guestworkers make up a large and growing portion of the workforce, specifically in information technology occupations and industries. IT employers look to guestworker programs as a source of labor that is plentiful even at wages that appear to be too low to attract large numbers of the best and brightest domestic students.
There are solutions to this mess. But current policy as well as policies in the making—such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership—make matters worse. Hardly a surprise then that so many young adults don't trust the political system to improve their lot. Why should they when so many politicians are unwilling to push for needed changes?
This situation is not the natural order. It is an artificial creation that can and must be altered to benefit the overall populace and not just those in the economic stratosphere. Getting there means rooting out the politicians in the pockets of the plutocrats—whether they are Republicans or Democrats. There is no reason whatsoever to delay this process for yet another election cycle.