Better education doesn't correlate strongly to economic mobility (but union membership does)

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Going to a good school but not getting the right degree doesn’t automatically make you successful? Big surprise there.

I’d recommend either a professional career, like doctor, dentist, lawyer, engineer, etc. Or a union job. If you get your art history degree, you should not expect much mobility.


Can confirm. My degrees got me an interview, but my experience got me the job and the only reason the job is great is that it’s a union job. I make significantly more in this position than I did in my previous position at a non-union job and the previous job was more stressful and every year you had to argue for a raise and essentially only got one when a coworker didn’t.


Good advice - apart from becoming a lawyer (don’t do that if you want to earn big bucks) - but that’s not what the study says.

It indicates that elementary and secondary education don’t have much impact on your wealth as opposed to your parents’.

The real ‘well, duh’ point is that being wealthy is easier if your parents and everyone you know are already quite rich.


I’m sure the headline is true, but the Human Resources Culture of corporate America is deeply invested in credentialism. For some jobs if you don’t have the right sheepskin you don’t get past the gatekeeper. As long as that’s the case, a college degree may not correlate to upward economic mobility (per this study) but the lack of one will almost ensure mobility of the downward sort.

There are no guarantees, but in a labour market rigged as to who gets the best jobs going to a good school (“good” being defined by our society as name-brand, US News top 30 or so) does matter more than the getting the right (“right” being defined as practical) degree. Outside the professions requiring a graduate degree it’s all about contacts and networking – an art history degree from Yale will be enough to get you a job at an investment bank if your friend and classmate is the daughter of its executive VP.

As for union jobs, those are thinner and thinner on the ground outside the public sector thanks to “right to work” laws and 40 years of anti-union propaganda (not that unions didn’t do their part in their own demise).

The licensed trades (plumber, electrician, etc.) are an alternative that can translate to economic mobility, but vocational education has been so devalued by the myth that “everyone needs a college degree” that America has convinced itself these are jobs for “losers.”

Definitely not. Once you get outside the tier one law school range a lot of them are resorting to scams to cover up the sad truth about their graduates’ employment prospects.


(but union membership does)

Union Busting by the political right and 1% has worked well to dumb down our nation. Their biggest fear is an educated citizen.


Thanks for the advice, DAD.




Is it bad advice, though? I mean, if you want to get out of school and get a good job, is it a terrible idea to major in a well-compensated field as opposed to a “fun” or easy major?

I’m not saying that America doesn’t have employment or compensation issues, but we’re also running up against the tyranny of automation - that is, you’d better pick a hard (for other humans and for computers to do) field if you don’t want to worry about both of those competing your wages into the dirt…

If unions but not education is what helps. That would make me think that people who are born without much money are helped to become wealthier by the existence of jobs that pay well.

It’s almost like the biggest factor that correlated to how much money people have is how much they are paid.

The fields least likely to be taken over by computers are almost certainly the liberal arts fields that were derided in the original advice. Computers will be doctors and engineers long before they are historians.

The argument is really: “Who needs historians?” It’s a circular argument that starts with the assumption that the value of everything is the dollar value that someone will pay for it and that ends when a new aristocracy controls everything.


Ahem. I believe I specified “…and get a good job” (which I think was obvious in context to mean “well-paying”, as opposed to “fulfilling”, which is also important, but not really germane here).

You can major in whatever you like, I’m not deriding that! But there’s this thing where you kind of have to plan your life choices around what you want to get out of life. If you want to be artistically and creatively fulfilled, and ideally have a trust fund, then go liberal arts all the way! If you want to have financial security, try to angle for a job that’s highly compensated.

Now, there’s a totally separate discussion to be had about a basic income, and the need for one in a society that’s becoming increasingly automated, because I think we can both agree that not only do we need historians and artists and art critics and all these things in a healthy society, but we need to make sure they’re financially viable choices, and also that we don’t have people that don’t really care about those things competing for those jobs just to get a paycheck!

But that aside, there will always be a disconnect between “socially valuable” and “financially valuable” jobs to some degree; that just seems baked into how we’re hardwired as a species, and a historian saying they should get paid like a physician isn’t going to get enough traction to make any changes. I mean, unless they write squishy pop-quasi-scientific books (ahem, Jared Diamond? Paging Mr. Diamond?).

It depends on the person, really. If your goal in a career is simply maximizing your income, and you’re OK with many years of additional schooling beyond a 4-year bachelor’s degree, then sure, advising someone to work towards a job as a lawyer (well, sometimes), a medical professional, or getting an MBA is solid advice.

But I think the vast majority of people would gladly trade a much lower salary for a career in a field they’re actually passionate about. People who choose to spend four years or more studying art history aren’t doing so because they’ve heard that art historians all live in huge mansions (and holy crap, there’s nothing ‘easy’ about such a degree). But they can still get a very good job as such, and plan their life around doing so. And be quite mobile and agile, as well.

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Exactly. The majority of my skills I use for my job I did not learn in college. Partly because everything I use today was either in development while I was in college, or would not exist for years after.

So what does my degree get me? Past the keyword checkers, and the HR people who skim the resume in 10 seconds. Relevant experience is the rest.


Hm. Maybe. But some might say that high-power, billion dollar corporations and multinationals needing coverage for nefarious/questionable/envelope-stretching dealings are more likely to employ Yale, Harvard, Columbia educated lawyers.

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More Dad advice:
You should study hard in school so you can get a good job. Then work hard at your job, even if it makes you incredibly unhappy. Save all your money and live frugally, then when you retire you have some money to have fun. Of course you’ll be old, broken and unhappy by then and probably won’t be able to enjoy your retirement.


Thanks, Dad! I joke, because “you should get a degree in something sensible and basic that’s a sure fire moneymaker” was advice I got early on as I started looking at art schools.

I think studying hard in school and living frugally are good advice for pretty much anybody, honestly. Although watching my parents work at the same jobs for 35 yrs, retire, and only start traveling and enjoying themselves at the age of 70 has been a wonderful lesson in exactly why I should travel now while I still have working knees and hips.


Of course, society is largely about structure and organization. That’s where all the power comes from. What boggles me is why more people don’t create organizations for what needs doing in their lives. Yet they are more quick to join existing ones, the bigger and more dubious they are.

Unions, gangs, communes, etc are the effective way to act against divide-and-rule, to avoid being a mere resource for parasites.

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The crud they will teach in Tort Law School will have been invented by people without Tort Law JDs, to paraphrase The Grugq. Too cyclical! The HR Culture claims there’s a meritocracy, and…well. I guess I gotta read the paper to see if I need to marry a few more times or trade loose when I invest. Then I can get into whatever ‘labor market returns to education’ means and how it correlates to not being on facebook.

Aw nuts, they keep making more transplant knees and hips. It’s back to troublesome now?


Credentialism works as a partial class filter: it allows them to exclude from the professional ranks anyone who couldn’t afford or access college.

To deal with the smart and determined working class kids who force their way into college, they fall back on the older tricks. Just don’t hire 'em; they’d be a “poor cultural fit”, anyway.

The insane expense of the US student debt situation twists the knife. Gotta punish the uppity peasants in order to discourage the others.


The thing is, your second point makes the preceding paragraph pretty much irrelevant to the original post. What is good economic advice for an individual can be totally irrelevant to a society. A world of 2x or 10x as many people with engineering degrees, or pre-med qualifications, etc. doesn’t mean there will be 2x or 10x as many jobs for those people to take (or twice as many med schools spots or residencies). Society may well be better off if there were - but that is not how the labor market works.