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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press The NYT's Confusion Over Why More Men Don't Go to College Isn't as Confusing to People Who Know the Data

The NYT's Confusion Over Why More Men Don't Go to College Isn't as Confusing to People Who Know the Data

Friday, 31 August 2012 07:24

A lengthy NYT Magazine piece reports on the increasing number of couples where the women earns more than the man. It notes that one reason is that women are graduating college in higher numbers. At one point it presents the views of Michael Greenstone, an economist at M.I.T. and director of the Hamilton Project:


“An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the global economy. ... It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.”

Actually it is not as much of a mystery to people who know the data. There is considerable wage dispersion for both men with college degrees and men with just high school degrees. As a result, even though on average college grads earn much more than men with just a high school degree, there are many men with college degrees who earn less than people with just high school degrees. My colleague John Schmitt and Heather Boushey found that in 2009, 20 percent of recent college grads earned less than the average high school graduate.

Stepping back a bit, it is likely that the marginal high school grad, who is debating going to college, would be near the top of the wage distribution for people with just high school degrees. On the other hand, if they were to go to college, they would likely be towards the bottom of the distribution of people with college degrees. Given the expense and opportunity cost of going to college, it might be a very reasonable decision for this person not to opt to go to college.

If the NYT had found someone more familiar with the data, they could have explained this point to readers.

Comments (12)Add Comment
written by AlanInAZ, August 31, 2012 9:42
This post might explain why college graduation rates are not as high as expected but I fail to see how this explains the gender gap. Is the wage dispersion much less for women than men?
Wage Dispersion is Much less for Women than Men
written by Dean, August 31, 2012 9:51
Yes, to AlanInAZ
written by skeptonomist, August 31, 2012 10:07
Isn't it still true that women earn less than men? Why shouldn't society be trending towards equality, with the woman in a family being as likely to earn more than the man? If this happens does it mean that men are being stupid? Should they be conspiring to keep women down?
written by Cosmo10, August 31, 2012 10:42
College degrees are simply not worth the costs. It’s a pure question of supply and demand. The demand in numerous jobs requiring a bachelor like in business, finance, architecture, engineering, and administrative occupations has actually fallen during the last 5 years. Other occupations such as management, IT, life science, and education have registered some modest gains. By far, healthcare is the only big winner. The legal field remains essentially unchanged.http://theeconomicbreakdown.co...-worth-it/ Only the medical field is adding enough jobs to absorb the army of new graduates. If women are doing better than men nowadays, it’s essentially due to reverse discrimination laws.
Oh God, Not More 'End of Men Garbage'
written by LSTB, August 31, 2012 12:25
There isn't much more to say than that, except for two things:

(1) The marginal male high school grad is probably at a higher risk of dropping out of college than the last male who decides to attend, assuming that marginality is relevant to the likelihood of dropping out (e.g. I'm sure Mark Zuckerberg got good grades in high school, and plenty of other men with good grades in high school drop out for other reasons than striking it rich). Thus, even if the marginal high school male does attend, he would probably be at the bottom of the "some college, no degree" payscale once he drops out. According to the Census Bureau (P-28, http://www.census.gov/hhes/www...al/people/), for 18-24-year-old males, the average earnings are higher for high school grads ($17,145) than "some college, no degree" ($13,852). At best this suggests that in the short to medium run, college is a bad investment even for the person above the marginal male high school graduate.

(2) Marginal high school males are more likely to take jobs that women tend not to if they're available, e.g. the military (stop-loss or no), the police, and fire protection. These jobs pay better than dropping out of college and trying to pay down any loans for no earned degree.
written by AlanInAZ, August 31, 2012 12:36
The irony of the piece is that the success of the women profiled was not attributed to their college degrees but rather to their willingness to accept jobs of lesser stature than the men. Many of the men profiled had degrees but were still unsuccessful making the necessary transitions because of cultural reasons. To my mind the piece sheds no light on the national trend of women outnumbering men in college.
Vocational school makes it even clearer
written by Floccina, August 31, 2012 2:35
This http://econlog.econlib.org/arc..._educ.html by Bryan Caplan is in keep with your hypothesis:

Imagine sharing these facts with a 15-year-old weighing the vocational vs. the academic tracks: "If you do vocational education, you're more likely to have a job for the next 35 years. But after that, you're less likely to have a job." Sounds like a good trade-off, doesn't it?

More sophisticated econometrics are at least as supportive of vocational education:

ndividuals completing a vocational education are more likely to be employed when young, but this employment advantage diminishes with age: as early as age 50, individuals completing a general education start to experience higher probabilities of employment. This pattern is robust to adding more control variables, dropping the youngest group in the sample, and using a matched sample.

The earnings results are less solid and less favorable, but still mixed:

For Germany and Denmark, the present value of earnings favors those with a general education. Over the lifetime, the German worker with a general education will have 24 percent higher earnings than one with a vocational education, while a Dane with general education will see six percent higher earnings. For Switzerland, however, the higher present value goes to those with vocational education; the early earnings gains more than make up for the gains in later earnings that accrue to workers with general training, and vocational workers have eight percent higher lifetime earnings.

Furthermore, these results ignore a serious possibility of unobserved differences between kids who chose vocational rather than academic education. Most plausibly: the kids who chose vocational education would have rebelled against academic education. They would have had lower grades, lower completion rates, and higher crime rates than the kids who self-select into the academic track. It's more than plausible that these factors would tip the private return in favor of vocational education.

written by JSeydl, August 31, 2012 5:19
One of the reasons why the wage dispersion for men is higher than for women is because men who otherwise wouldn't go to college have been forced into college; because this country decimated its manufacturing base by supporting strong-dollar principles. Women traditionally don't work in manufacturing, so the overvalued currency has affected them less.
written by bobs, August 31, 2012 7:55
I love JSeydl's perfectly circular argument.

Lack of manufacturing forces men into college, which causes wage dispersion, which, as Dean explained, keeps men away from college.

The solution therefore is to restore the manufacturing base, which will keep men away from college and stop the wage dispersion which in turn will send men back to college.

Yep, makes perfect sense.
written by JSeydl, August 31, 2012 11:32

Men foregoing college because of the high cost is a more recent trend; I'm talking about over the past 30 years.
Manufacturing is a major employer of Engineers, Scientists
written by Alex Hamilton, September 02, 2012 5:04
I agree with J. Seydi. Manufacturing decline is an important part of this story. Manufacturers are major employers for engineers (male dominated) as well as many kinds of scientists (traditionally, also male dominated) as well as middle and upper management types, where males also predominated in part because of ol'boy networks.
Psych 201
written by rm, September 04, 2012 6:50
[why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.”]

Women are more likely to be in and out of the job market for obvious reason, a woman's income is not a major factor for consideration for men and as a result, their identity is less attached to their jobs.

A man is pretty much DEFINED by his career choice in this culture, his income is a major factor in attractiveness to prospective mates, and barring extenuating circumstances, does not willingly leave the job market for any extended period of time.

Add to that the fact that we are resistant to change, and I'm not sure why social scientists are "puzzled."

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.