Paul Krugman has reproduced an OECD chart that was featured in  a recent post by Jared Bernstein. The graph of interest (below) contrasts the share of older and younger people in OECD countries that have the equivalent of a four-year college degree or more.


Source: OECD via Jared Bernstein.

The dark blue squares show the share of the population age 55-64 with a college education; the light blue triangles show the share of much younger 25-34 year olds that have college degree. The arrows connecting the two observations for each country give an idea of the degree of national progress between generations. So, the long lines for Korea or Ireland, for example, suggest enormous progress in the thirty years or so between the time when the two age groups hit college age.

Jared’s main concern is that the United States “has essentially ceased making progress in terms of college attainment.” There is no arrow between the older and the younger generations’ college attainment rates because they are basically identical. Jared also notes that our younger generations are “now behind those of 12 other countries.” Krugman highlights the same points: “what we see is that almost every other nation is becoming more educated, but we’re not — and, of course, [the United States is] slipping rapidly down the rankings.”

I’d also emphasize two additional points. First, it is nice to hear a prominent economist like Krugman argue that the cost of college “is surely the biggest single reason for our slide.” Almost anyone who isn’t an economist will be surprised to hear that the costs of college barely appear on the radar screen of most economists who study the steep rise in inequality over the last three decades.

Here, for example, are economists Michael Greenstone (MIT) and Adam Looney (Brookings), in their otherwise excellent paper (pdf) on stagnating and declining male earnings since the 1970s:

…men have largely stopped upgrading their skills – the portion of young men who complete college has hardly budged since the late 1970s. The reasons are not entirely clear, but include the end of the Vietnam War (which had artificially inflated college attendance rates among men) and a temporary narrowing of the wage gap in the 1970s as the supply of skilled workers in the labor force surged.

Not a mention of the rising cost of college, and this is entirely typical in the economics profession. (Heather Boushey and I have a different take (pdf).)

Second, Germany is an interesting and overlooked case. In the chart, Germany looks just like the United States, with no progress between the two generations. Worse, the Germans look stuck at a much lower level than the United States –even below the OECD average. Yet, Germany is one of the world’s economic powerhouses and leading exporters.

The German experience suggests that economic success isn’t all about college. Germany puts fewer people through college, but also provides important post-secondary educational opportunities for the majority of young people that don’t get a college degree, including the acclaimed German apprenticeship system.

It isn’t just that we don’t have enough college graduates in the United States, it is also that we don’t create enough high-quality, post-secondary but non-college educational experiences either.

This post originally appeard on John Schmitt's blog No Apparent Motive.