Mr. Plummer and the string stretchers

Mr. Samuel Plummer (I still think of him as Mr. Plummer), who was principal of Williamsport (Md.) High School when I attended, gave a talk to a high school assembly on the benefits of education which was remembered for years.  I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember the gist of it.  It went as follows: –

If you look outside the windows of the auditorium, you’ll see men digging ditches for the new sewer main.  It is important work, and it is very hard work, in the hot sun.  If you keep on watching, you’ll see other men putting little pegs into the ground, and stretching string between the pegs, to show where the ditch is supposed to go.  Now stretching string between pegs is much easier work than digging a ditch with a shovel, but strange to say, the men who stretch the string are paid more than the men who dig the ditch.

Now what is the difference between the men who dig the ditch and the men who stretch the string? The men who stretch the string have high school diplomas. The men who dig the ditch dropped out of high school before they graduated. So it is up to you.  Do you want to be a ditch-digger or a string-stretcher? If you want to be a string-stretcher, stay in high school until you graduate.

And if you keep on watching the ditch digging, you’ll see men walking around with clip boards who are doing hardly any work at all. They are college graduates. So you can see the value of education.

Mr. Plummer probably would be gratified to know that the wage gap between college graduates, high school graduates and high-school dropouts still exists. Click on this chart or its duplicate for recent figures.  The chart shows that from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the average real earnings (meaning pay adjusted for inflation) of people with college educations rose, while the earnings of those with lesser education fell. Since then all groups made slight gains, but the education gap remained.

The difference is that nowadays high school dropouts have a hard time finding any work at all, while high school graduates are competing with college graduates for the jobs equivalent to string stretcher. It really takes a college education to get the kind of job a high school graduate could get 60 years ago.  And while high school education is free, college education is not affordable to increasing numbers of people.

But I don’t think that more schooling for everyone will necessarily close the wage gap.  I’ll go into the reasons below.

I think formal schooling based on classroom instruction is a fine thing, for those who want it and have an aptitude for it.  For others, a more hands-on kind of learning might be best.  While statistics indicate that the higher-level degree you have, the higher your earnings are likely to be, I don’t think those figures tell the whole story.

George W. Bush attended Phillips Academy, Yale University and Harvard Business School, and then went on to become a millionaire businessman, in spite of the fact that his businesses failed.  There’s correlation here between educational level and lifetime income, but the correlation is not causation. Rather the cause is that Bush was a member of an influential family who could get him into college, provide him with business opportunities and bail him out when he failed.

This is a rather extreme example, but there is an elite class in this country who get to go to the best of schools based on their fathers being alumni or their families making large financial contributions, and then get jobs in elite law firms or financial firms based on connections they made in college.  This is not to say that members of this elite are bad people, or even that they are incompetent at what they do – only that their position in society depends on other things besides educational attainment.

The figures for the college wage premium are an average, which includes members of the elite, and also includes a friend of mine who recently took on tens of thousands of dollars in college debt to gain a master’s degree in a field which he had good reason to believe was a marketable skill.  He has been getting by hand to mouth in a series of part time and temporary jobs, while shopping at Family Dollar Stores or Dollar Trees are too upscale.

Suppose at the other extreme that college degrees became the norm, as high school diplomas are now.  There still would be a need for people to check out groceries at the supermarket, for people to feed and clean up patients with Alzheimer’s disease in nursing homes, for people to pick up trash in public parks.  If all these people suddenly had college degrees, would their pay go up?
Not by much, I would think.

The job market is like a game of musical chairs, in which another chair is removed after each round.  There are ways to increase your odds of getting one of the remaining chairs, but my question is whether the game has to be played at all.

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