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.