How the Recession Impacts Education in America
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How the Recession Impacts Education in America


The Great Depression changed the way people thought about education in America. When massive job loss left few better options than staying in and graduating from high school, graduation rates rose from just 30 percent in 1930 to 50 percent in 1940.

It took a tragedy to form a more positive long term attitude towards education. The Great Depression got people to start graduating from high school, and it paved the way for America to become the economic force that it did in the 20th century. Great companies flourished, like GM, U.S. Steel, R.C.A. and I.B.M.

Today, the rate of the population that graduates from college is around 30 percent, mirroring the rate of high school graduation before the onset of the Great Depression. The New York Times article asks: will American experience a parallel rise in college graduation during the current economic recession?

The Obama Administration says a 30 percent college graduation rate is too low for America. Pay for college graduates is disproportionately higher than for non-graduates, and that gap has continued to widen for the last three decades, reaching an all-time high last year.

In other words, there are too few college graduates. The market could use a lot more, as supply and demand numbers suggest the U.S. is not close to the natural limit of college grads who can find good employment.

A recession can change the dynamic, however. Often during tough economic times people will stay in school who might otherwise have moved into the workforce. Jobs that do not require a college education have been some of the hardest hit during this recession. Many of these layoffs weren't temporary, as data suggests some of these jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector, are gone for good. This has led to many people filing bankruptcy, but it may also lead to a shift in priorities.

In other words, a recession can remind people how important education is economically.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 70 percent of high school grads enrolled in college, up from 67.2 percent in 2007. This figure represents a new record. Also, this increase is happening at community colleges, which serve working class and poor students who are already among those getting left out of the competitive workplace.

The problem is that many of these students are not graduating from college.

As college enrollment rates have climbed, graduation rates have fallen. Two-thirds of students who enroll in two-year degree programs in community colleges will not graduate. They are not, therefore, getting the degrees that will help them get better-paying jobs. While America enrolls more students in college than any other country in the world, the U.S. is not a leader in graduations.

The Obama administration is working to address this so-called college-dropout boom. A new bill includes $2 billion to community colleges showing promise in attacking the problem. The Gates Foundation, the non-profit established by the Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, now considers two-year colleges a crucial element of improving education nationwide.

Administrators have not yet pinpointed solutions to the problem. Some, like the important element of student preparation, seem to be out of schools’ control. But remedial programs show promise, as does financial aid that rewards academic performance.

Another problem is tuition. Depression-era high school was free, but college will likely never come without monetary cost. Often it is up to students to find the creativity and the tenacity to navigate these costs. But even this can difficult during a time when all jobs are tough to find.

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