Implications of Educational Inequality for the Future Workforce

Bailey, Thomas R.

Education is a fundamental basis of productivity growth. Not only are educated workers more productive, but technological change that generates productivity is dependent on the availability of an educated workforce, both for the scientists and engineers that directly generate those innovations, but also for the many related occupations that support innovative work and that create the economic and technical infrastructure on which innovation is based. In the past, the US education system has produced an educated workforce adequate to maintain a relatively high level of productivity growth, and at least the higher education system was considered the best in the world. Certainly the education system has always been highly inequitable in the sense that educational achievement was closely related to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. I argue in this paper that economic, political, social, and demographic factors are changing in such a way that in the future, the traditional educational inequality in the United States is going to increasingly stand in the way of the ability to sustain productivity growth and to compete successfully in international markets. In the past, educational inequality was a problem primarily for those individuals who ended up with low levels of education; increasingly it will be a problem for everyone. The first section of the paper provides background on past discussions about the relationship between education and productivity. I then discuss in particular the current political and economic environment as it relates to the development and expansion of higher education. The K-12 system provides the educational foundation of the system, but the growth in productivity increasingly depends on the reach and quality of the higher education system. Next I discuss the growing racial and ethnic heterogeneity of the population and describe differences in educational attainment for different population groups. Finally, I report on forecasts of future overall educational levels based on Census Department population growth projections.


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Academic Units
Community College Research Center
Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
April 3, 2014