Nothing Defines America’s Social Divide Like a College Education

Updated at 5:17 p.m. ET on October 4, 2023

Inequality is one of the great constants. But what sets those at the top of society apart from those at the bottom has varied greatly. In some times and places, it was race; in others, “noble” birth. In some, physical strength; in others, manual dexterity. In America today, most of these factors still matter. The country is racially unequal. Some people inherit great wealth; others become celebrities through sporting prowess.

But much of America’s transformation in recent decades—including many of the country’s problems—can be ascribed to the ascendancy of a different marker of distinction: education. Whether or not you have graduated from college is especially important. This single social marker now determines much more than it did in the past what sort of economic opportunities you are likely to have and even how likely you are to get married.

Educational status doesn’t only influence how Americans live, though. As a new set of papers from the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton shows, educational status has now overtaken other metrics, including race, in predicting one of the most important socioeconomic outcomes you can imagine: how long you get to live.

The rise of educational attainment as an indicator of social differentiation can be traced all the way back to the origins of modern democracy. The chief architects of the French Revolution were highly preoccupied with the obstacles to social mobility that had defined the ancien régime, a system in which prominent positions were reserved for members of the aristocracy and public offices such as judgeships were openly purchased. The French republicans founded public schools and universities that selected their students on the basis of competitive examinations, and furnished the upper echelons of French society with engineers, architects, civil servants, and other luminaries. Reflecting on his life from exile in St. Helena, Napoleon claimed that the revolutionary maxim of a “career open to the talent” had always guided him.

The Founders of the American republic worried about education for another reason: They saw an educated populace as a prerequisite for political stability. It would be a particular priority to attend to “the education of the common people,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, for “on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”

Although democracy and education have always been closely intertwined, the degree to which formal educational qualifications are a prerequisite for political or societal influence is relatively new. In the past, many people could—and did—rise to the pinnacles of politics and society without graduating from college. Neither Harry Truman nor Winston Churchill, for example, had any formal qualifications beyond high school. In the year after World War II, almost half of U.S. congressmen and a quarter of U.S. senators did not have a bachelor’s or graduate degree; today, this holds true for only 6 percent of congressmen and a single senator. In all but exceptional circumstances, an undergraduate degree, preferably from a famous school, has become a necessary passport to the upper echelons of American life. As a result, educational status is now one of the strongest predictors of lifetime earnings, outstripping race or gender.

The “college bonus” refers to the wage advantage enjoyed by those who have a higher degree. In the 1970s, this bonus was very slight: Comparing a worker over the age of 25 who did have a college degree with an otherwise similar worker who did not have a college degree, the former enjoyed an income advantage of about 10 percent. Four decades later, that small gap had grown to a wide chasm. By the mid-2010s, a worker with a bachelor’s degree could expect to outearn an otherwise similar worker without a bachelor’s degree by about 70 percent. (Other studies find the same effect even if its magnitude varies: The college wage bonus has kept growing.)

Since 1980, differences in educational attainment have started to predict even the most personal outcomes. Americans without a bachelor’s degree are now much more likely to experience extreme mental distress. They are much more likely to suffer from physical pain. And they are much more likely to report that they are lonely or have difficulty socializing.

Even the chances of sustaining a successful relationship now strongly depend on educational status. Beginning in 1980, “the likelihood of divorce among college-educated Americans plummeted,” as Eli J. Finkel wrote in The Atlantic. Americans without college degrees, by contrast, are now far more likely to get divorced—and far less likely to get married in the first place. As a result, college-educated Americans are much more likely to be in a stable marriage than their compatriots who did not go to college.

All of these findings have convinced me that the gap between the educational haves and have-nots is now a defining cleavage in American life. Even so, I was genuinely shocked by Case and Deaton’s latest research, which demonstrates how far this difference now goes, explaining why Americans die so much younger than the inhabitants of other affluent countries.

Case and Deaton made headlines nearly a decade ago by uncovering the startling fact that adult life expectancy in the United States had started to decline—the first time in the country’s history that this had occurred for reasons other than war or pestilence. Much of this trend was driven by what Case and Deaton named “deaths of despair.” These included the hundreds of thousands of Americans felled by the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the country since the late 1990s. Other deaths of despair involve the consequences of alcoholism and a very high rate of gun suicide.

The increase of this type of mortality makes America an extreme outlier. It is now virtually the only rich nation in the world where adult life expectancy began to fall well before the coronavirus pandemic (Scotland being the other exception).

The more closely Case and Deaton looked at the data for the U.S., the more struck they were by who was, and who wasn’t, suffering a premature death. Nearly all of the victims of deaths of despair did not have a bachelor’s degree; those who did were practically immune.

The trend held true when Case and Deaton expanded their search beyond deaths of despair. As they show in a new paper presented last week at the Brookings Institution, the chances of an American dying prematurely from a range of other diseases not obviously related to “despair,” including most forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease, also depend heavily on educational status.

These correlations help explain what underpinned Case and Deaton’s original finding about the divergence between the U.S. and other rich democracies. Until the pandemic, longevity for Americans with degrees continued to increase in step with the world’s wealthiest countries; even after COVID-19 increased mortality in rich countries, this demographic group suffered only a modest decrease in adult life expectancy. But Americans without a bachelor’s degree had a starkly different trajectory. They had already begun to suffer serious declines in longevity before the pandemic; when COVID hit, their adult life expectancy plummeted. (Case and Deaton mostly use a metric of adult life expectancy, which shows how many years people can expect to live once they have reached their 25th birthday.)

Today, the adult life expectancy of Americans with a college degree is comparable to that for residents of any other successful country. The adult life expectancy of Americans without a college degree, by contrast, is much lower. The gap between the two groups is now so large that Americans without a college degree have an adult life expectancy closer to that for residents of many developing countries than to the Japanese or Swiss. The highly educated and the “poorly educated,” as Donald Trump famously called them, now practically live in two different countries.

graph showing life expectancy of college vs non college educated americans

Case and Deaton’s findings also suggest that, at least in one crucial respect, America’s educational divide now surpasses the gap that has historically been most significant: race. As recently as 1990, race still trumped educational status as a determinant of life span in the United States. White Americans without a four-year college degree could expect to live longer than Black Americans with one.

This has changed. The adult life expectancy of Black Americans with a bachelor’s degree has increased markedly over the past three decades. As a result, they can now expect to live much longer than whites without a bachelor’s degree: “Black men and women with a BA, who used to have fewer expected years from 25 to 75 than White people without a BA, now have more expected years,” Case and Deaton write. “As a result, Black people with a BA are currently closer to White people with a BA than to Black people without a BA, in sharp contrast to the situation in 1990.” (For this set of calculations, Case and Deaton use a specific metric for adult life expectancy that calculates the number of years that people can expect to live between their 25th and their 75th birthdays.)

graph showing life expectancy difference between white and black American men

Racial disparities do persist. But the difference in adult life expectancy between Americans with and without a bachelor’s degree is now starker than that between white and Black Americans. In 1992, an average white American could expect to live six years longer than an average Black American, a gap that fell to three years by 2018. But over the same period, the gap in adult life expectancy among Americans with different educational credentials has widened at the exact same pace. In 1992, an average college graduate could expect to live three years longer than an average non–college graduate, a difference that increased to six years by 2018.

graph showing life expectancy difference by race and educational status

A natural question to ask about these findings is what drives this dramatic divergence in the outcomes between the most educated Americans and everybody else. According to one theory, Americans who go to college acquire skills that allow them to excel in a range of professions; the rewards of a degree might reflect their greater ability to contribute to public life and our collective prosperity. According to another theory, important traits such as the capacity to avoid self-destructive behaviors have a strong bearing both on whether somebody gains a college degree and on whether they’re able to live a healthy and successful life. In this case, the difference between these two groups might be mostly “compositional” in nature, simply reflecting the fact that different kinds of people are likely to end up in each group.

Case and Deaton, who prefer describing trends to explaining their causes, caution that scholars have yet to come up with a definitive answer to this question. But they mistrust explanations that rationalize the chasm between Americans with and Americans without a college degree as an accurate reflection of each group’s respective choices or skill sets. “We have increasingly come to believe,” they conclude in their new paper, that a college degree “works through often arbitrary assignation of status, so that jobs are allocated, not by matching necessary or useful skills, but by the use of the BA as screen.” In an email to me, Deaton was more blunt: Both he and Case believe that the college degree is most important as “a route to social standing.”

Regardless of the reasons for this divide, in a just society, holding a college degree should not be nearly so predictive of one’s life trajectory as it now is in the United States. “If some Nero or Domitian was to require a hundred persons to run a race for their lives,” the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill pointed out, that race would not be any more just because “the strongest or nimblest would, except through some untoward accident, be certain to escape.” The same, Mill pointed out, is true in societies that award a more humane existence to those who outcompete others: “To assert as a mitigation of the evil that those who thus suffer are the weaker members of the community, morally or physically, is to add insult to misfortune.”

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This article originally misidentified a graph showing life expectancy for people with and without a college degree, by race. The data depicted incorporate all Americans, not just men.

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