By Kevin Raczynski
2017 data from the United States Census Bureau showed a clear trend. Educational attainment over a 20-year period has increased, both overall, and for every racial and ethnic subgroup. In fact, for the first time on record, over 90% of United States citizens over the age of 25 have completed at least a high school education. Among these, 34.4% have earned Bachelor’s degrees.
The relationship between educational attainment, employment, and earnings is well-documented. A 2018 United States Bureau of Labor Statistics report illustrated that unemployment rates for Americans age 25 and older decreased as educational attainment increased. The unemployment rate was highest (5.6%) among citizens without a high school diploma, but decreased with each additional level of education attained: high school diploma (4.1%), some college (3.7%), associate’s degree (2.8%), and bachelor’s degree (2.2%). Rates were lower still for those with advanced degrees. The same report supported another established relationship: those with more education tend to earn more. Median weekly incomes for high school graduates were 32% higher than for those who did not finish high school. Americans with bachelor’s degrees earned 64% more than those with a high school diploma but no college. Rounding out the trend, those with professional degrees (e.g., medical and law degrees) earned 57% more than those with bachelor’s degrees only.
Of course, access to higher education provides much more than pathways to employment opportunities and higher incomes. See, for example, Toni Morrison’s “How Can Values Be Taught in the University?” Further, reflecting on my own experiences teaching, and learning from, undergraduates, I am reminded of many specific examples of mindset changes I have seen and undergone myself. We have a tremendous capacity to become more expansive and empathetic in our thinking about any issue, theme, opportunity, problem, or precedent. It is an unsettling business to be confronted with the narrow, biased, and imperfect ways of our pursuits. Yet it seems right to say that such a stir is the necessary catalyst for becoming more human. The syllabus from my first semester teaching skewed heavily toward authors of European descent. I can’t help but reflect on how much less transformative that first semester must have been, necessarily, compared to subsequent semesters. For students. For me. What can I say, except “Forward!”?
Higher education has undeniable potential to promote material, social, and emotional prosperity. Yet it seems essential, on National Higher Education Day, to remain mindful of challenges that must continue to be addressed: affordability, access, and creating systems for students from all backgrounds to thrive when they arrive on campus, whether that campus is physical or virtual. Practical suggestions can be found at https://nationalhighereducationday.org/resources.