Changing America: America’s growing education divide

In the corner of Darrel Steinberg’s office sits a thermometer, printed on poster board about three feet high. Someone has colored in the bottom parts of the thermometer in red ink, to represent the number of high school seniors who have been placed in paid internships across Sacramento, part of a program the city calls Thousand Strong.

The 57-year-old Steinberg, a Democrat serving his first term as mayor, says the program is meant to prepare students graduating from Sacramento schools for the new economy. It is a task the modern education system does not entirely achieve.

“We have failed to articulate, beyond platitudes, the essential connection between what we teach, how we teach and how that prepares people for the modern workforce,” Steinberg said in a recent interview. “We will be a very good city if we grow a high-wage economy. We will be a great city if our kids are first in line for those jobs.”


Across the nation, policymakers are confronting a distinct gap between the skills taught in schools, and those required for success in the evolving workforce. Education has become a dividing line in America, one that separates those who are more likely to live prosperous lives from those who are more likely headed to a lifetime of struggle.

The difference between those who attain educational success and those who do not is driving changes in the way we live our lives, from our decision to get married to our views of the world. It is changing political behavior, and it even influences how long we are likely to live.

This is the sixth story in The Hill’s Changing America series, in which we explore the trends shaping society and politics today. The divides between growing urban cores and struggling rural regions, and between younger and older generations of Americans, are most evident in the divergent experiences of those who are prepared for economic success through educational attainment and those who are not.

More Americans than ever are going to college. Nearly two-thirds of those who have recently graduated from high school are attending college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. As recently as 1970, more than half of high school graduates did not even attend college. A third of 25–29 year olds — and almost 40 percent of women in that age cohort — have completed a four-year degree, according to the Census Bureau.

Those students are graduating with more debt than ever, but that debt appears to be worth it: As the economy demands higher levels of education for more skilled jobs, even in the manufacturing sector, the difference between what a college graduate can expect to earn over a lifetime and what a high school graduate will make has never been greater.

Today, the median annual earning of a millennial with a college degree working full time stands around $50,000. Median earnings of millennials with a high school education is just $30,000, according to Richard Fry, a labor economist at the Pew Research Center. That $20,000 gap is larger than the gap between members of the baby boom generation, who entered a workforce with far more opportunities for low-skilled manufacturing jobs.

“The real economic stress here is on those that don’t have a bachelor’s degree,” Fry said.

And that strain is showing itself in other behaviors, too: Those without a college degree are less likely to be married than those who have a degree, a reversal of earlier generations. They are far more likely to use tobacco. They are three times as likely to have abused illegal drugs in the last year, and twice as likely to have misused painkillers in the past month, according to a national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The stresses are most pronounced among whites without a college degree. The Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have found a marked rise in mortality rates in particular among white Americans without a college degree. At the same time, mortality rates have fallen for every other cohort in American society. Mortality rates for non-college educated whites are now 30 percent higher than among African-Americans of any education level.

Those without a college degree also express more dissatisfaction with life. Nearly three quarters of whites without a college degree say most other people cannot be trusted, while just 41 percent of college-educated whites say the same, according to the General Social Survey. More than half of whites without a college education say they find life routine, while 62 percent of college-educated whites call life exciting.

As the gap between life experiences of those with a college degree and those without has grown, so too has their political behavior changed.

Voters with a college degree backed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, by a 10-point margin, according to exit polls. Among whites with a college degree, President Trump won 48 percent to 45 percent.

Both of those numbers indicate a trend toward Democrats. In 2004, President George W. Bush beat then-Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Trump’s troubles deepen as voters see country on wrong path The continuous whipsawing of climate change policy Budowsky: United Democrats and Biden’s New Deal MORE (D-Mass.) among all college-educated voters by 6 points. Mitt Romney beat President Obama by a whopping 14 points among white college graduates in 2012.

“It starts in the ’90s that you get a split among white college and non-college” voters, said Ruy Teixeira, a demographer at the Center for American Progress. “And now the education gap is as big as we’ve ever seen.”

Among the 25 counties in America with the highest educational attainment levels, Clinton won 23. Among the 50 counties with the lowest levels of educational attainment, Trump won 43. The remaining seven are counties where minorities make up more than half the population.

As Trump’s job approval rating has tumbled, he is consistently losing among white college-educated voters. A Quinnipiac University poll released this month shows Trump’s job approval at 34 percent. Among whites with a college degree, just 37 percent approve. Among whites without a college degree, 46 percent approve and 43 percent disapprove.

“Trump changes the map to some extent because of the way he talks, who he talks to and how he delivers his message. The way he talks to people with college degrees, it’s insulting. They’re aghast,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who represented one of the best-educated districts in the nation in Northern Virginia.

Democratic strategists hope their better performance among college-educated voters can help them in midterm elections, when those voters make up a disproportionate share of the electorate. It is those voters who propelled the party to their last congressional majority, in the 2006 elections — and who sent the Democratic majority packing in the 2010 elections.

“This has been a trend that’s been going in Democrats’ favor for a long time. I think the Trump election accelerated that,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic data analytics expert. “As the tables turned and Democrats solidify their hold on college-educated whites, Democrats are less vulnerable in midterm elections.”

At the same time, voters without a college degree are shifting more radically toward Republicans, and Trump. Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Cindy McCain ‘disappointed’ McGrath used image of John McCain in ad attacking McConnell Report that Bush won’t support Trump reelection ‘completely made up,’ spokesman says MORE (R-Ariz.) beat Obama by 18 points among white voters without a college degree in 2008. Romney beat Obama by 25 points among those voters. And Trump beat Clinton by 27 points, 66 percent to 29 percent.

That shift, strategists on both sides say, is driven as much by cultural issues as by economic anxiety. The national Democratic Party has become more homogeneously liberal on issues like abortion, the environment and LGBT rights. The national Republican Party has little place for supporters of abortion rights or strict environmental rules, while Trump tapped into a more nativist vein by taking a hard line on immigration.

“At the same time that the parties have moved to the poles on cultural issues, there isn’t as much of a dividing line on economics. In the last several elections, both nominees were for tax cuts — the differentiation was just on how targeted and how deep,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster. 

“As the differences in partisan economics became less clear, the cultural contrasts are more stark than ever,” McCrary said. “That means in the higher educated, white-collar areas like [Georgia’s 6th District] or suburban Dallas, you see historically GOP turf trending Democratic due to more progressive views on cultural issues. And in whiter, more blue-collar areas like the Iron Range or small town Iowa, trending GOP due to more conservative cultural values.”

In Georgia’s 6th District, the most educated district in the country held by a Republican, former Secretary of State Karen Handel (R) bested Democrat Jon Ossoff by 4 percentage points. The district’s former representative, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, won reelection by a 24-point margin in 2016.

The shifting education gap, spurred by economic and cultural battles raging from Washington to Hollywood and the Heartland, is reshaping the coalitions both parties need to win control of government. And policymakers are increasingly searching for ways to influence that longer-term shift — as much for the future of the American workforce, and therefore the economy, as for politics.

“People need to be better prepared for the economic future,” Steinberg said. “And they’re not.”

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