Education and Income

One of the salient characteristics of US society is the link between education and wealth. There has always been a strong tie between knowledge and wealth, and a strong public education and educated workforce enabled the growth that the US experienced in the 1800s and 1900s.

Yes, there are exceptions — unicorns to use the increasingly cliched term. There are people who dropped out of the educational system to create highly inventions or companies. There are also athletes and entertainers who passed on degrees to go after wealth. You know who some of them are.

However, the exceptions may be fewer than you think. We saw the Angels draft a pitcher from Princeton this week. One of the most successful entertainers of all times, Mick Jagger, attended the elite London School of Economics. Legendary catcher Moe Berg graduated from Princeton and reportedly spoke 12 languages. He received a PhD from Columbia while active in the MLB. Other Princeton grads include actors Jimmy Stewart and Brook Shields, and NBA star and senator, Bill Bradley. NBA star Bill Walton graduated from UCLA and attended Stanford Law School. Golden State Warrior star Jeremy Lin graduated from Harvard. So did Buffalo QB, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif completed is MD degree from McGill University in 2018.

However, for the average person, the odds of becoming a highly successful dropout is on a par with the odds of being struck by lightning. You need smarts, skills, the idea, access to key people, the right timing, and luck. You have better odds betting on horses at a race track. As noted in a prior post, the odds of playing on a high school football team and making the NFL is far less than 1%.

So, education remains highly correlated with wealth. If you know what education a person has, you have a good idea of how well off they are financially. Conversely, if you know what they don’t have, you know how poor they are.

There are some forms of education that aren’t recognized as education — military service is a prime example. Recruits get training there. Arguably, the long-term enlisted are on a par with most college grads in terms of skills and knowledge.

The link between education and wealth is a factor in the high cost of education in the US. There are other factors that distort the cost of education, but clearly demand affects costs. And that cost has become too high for many Americans.

On average, only 30.9% of Americans have a four-year college degree (bachelor of arts or science). However, in the poorest communities in the US, that percentage is much lower. For example, in Macrae-Helena, Georgia (two towns that were merged in 2015 with a combined population of 8,745 as of 2017), only 5.2% have four-year college degrees and 41.5% live in poverty. The poorest city in the US, Centreville, Illinois (suburb of St. Louis with a population just over 5,000 and shrinking), has a 48.1% poverty rate while only 10.5% of residents have four-year degrees.

When Pink Floyd sang, “I don’t need no education,” apparently some people didn’t recognize that as satire.

The people who say education is unnecessary are the ones who want to hire servants for cheap.


  1. 24/7 Wall Street, “America’s Poorest Towns,” 6 June 2019
  2. Bleacher Report, “Steve Nash, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the 35 Smartest Athletes of All Time.”

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