Expansion, Diversity, and Choice: Wage Inequality Among College-Educated Workers, 1960–2016

Natasha Quadlin , The Ohio State University
Tom VanHeuvelen, University of Illinois at Chicago

Research on returns to higher education typically focuses on the college premium, or inequalities between workers with and without a college degree, which necessarily overlooks inequalities within college-educated workers. Although prior studies suggest several mechanisms that generate inequality within this group, including inequalities on account of sex, race/ethnicity, and nativity, as well as major choice, few have sought to quantify inequality among college educated workers, or adjudicate between competing explanations. We use 17 waves of census and ACS microdata from 1960 to 2016 to assess wage inequality among college-educated workers. We find that bachelor’s degree-holders account for most of the total wage inequality, with this trend accelerating in recent years. We further find that wage gaps on account of sex, race/ethnicity, and nativity are much larger than those on account of major choice. These findings support a structurally-based, rather than an agentic-based, model of wage inequality, which is often deemphasized in studies of returns to higher education.

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 Presented in Session 42. Educational Attainment and Labor Market Outcomes