To those not living in a data free zone the escalating talent demands of the post-recession economy and the growing economic benefit of a college credential certifying ability to meet those demands are as obvious as climate change and the growing wealth gap. For those who deny these realities you can stop reading now and prepare for your next flat earth meeting. For those who get it and are working to address the challenge of opening up college opportunity for those most in need, the growing stratification of the higher education system, declining college affordability, persistent success gaps for underrepresented groups, and inattention to adult learners already in the workforce in desperate need of what colleges have to offer is a challenge and some days a source of existential despair (see for example the recent Hechinger report on the rich-poor divide in higher education (http://hechingerreport.org/the-socioeconomic-divide-on-americas-college-campuses-is-getting-wider-fast/).
Still I am not always sure even the most devoted of us fully appreciate the life and death consequences of lost college opportunity for low and increasingly middle income students. Then something comes along like the recent Nobel Prize winning economic study of unexpected and stunning increases in U.S. mortality rates among whites followed up by an even broader follow-up analysis published recently in the New York Times (study). The Times provided a massive study of 60 million death certificates from 1990 to 2014 following up on the Nobel Prize winning research. The analysis showed a staggering increase in mortality rates for U.S. whites of all ages largely due to drugs and suicides. Noting that while the death rate rose over the last five years for every age group, the Time’s analysis showed that the death rate “rose faster by any measure for the less educated, by 23 percent for those without a high school education, compared to four percent for those with a college degree or more.”
While there is no doubt there are multiple contributors to this startling and horrible demographic trend, many researchers point to the role of poverty and the stresses it brings: poverty resulting in significant part from a lack of the education required to hold decent jobs. Eileen Crimmins, a professor at the University of Southern California quoted in the Times poignantly argues, “It’s not medical care, it’s life. There are people whose lives are so hard they break.”
The focus of these studies is on white mortality rates. Hispanics and African Americans are not experiencing the same increases. However, the rise in white mortality highlights a once yawning gap with, for example, for African Americans whose rate remains higher than whites though now less so. The impact of marginalization and lack of education opportunity is a long term issue for people of color who have long been minimally served by our colleges. We must continue to focus on the implications of a lack of college opportunity for these groups. And things are not getting better here either. In my home state of Illinois, a soon to be released report on college opportunity for underrepresented groups by my agency will show a large and disturbing drop in African American and Hispanic college enrollment across our two- and four-year public system. Each of these students, lost to college, faces a life also besieged by the stresses of poverty.
So, mortality rates largely due to suicides and addiction are growing six times faster for economically marginalized undereducated whites. Mortality rates for people of color still suffering from large college success gaps remain higher than white rates though thankfully declining due to medical advances.
Going forward two-thirds of all new and replacement jobs will require a college credential. Nationally all of the millions of newly created high and middle wage jobs since the recovery from the 2008 recession have gone to college graduates (high paying jobs, $53,000 in salary or above almost exclusively to those with a BA or higher).
Put all of this together and the conclusion seems obvious: current trends undercutting college opportunity for the less advantaged, have life and death implications for millions of Americans. Every educator responsible for putting people on a path to and through college, every policy maker who impacts college access and success, must understand the alternative path people will follow without college. That is a path to economic marginalization, poverty, stress, and a life so hard that many will break.