by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is a survey done by the Survey Center on American Life, which looks at the education divide in American social life. There is ample debate today about the value of a degree from a four-year college or university, balancing out the boost in earnings with the substantial student debt often accumulated by students that can take decades to pay off. But are there other benefits to a college degree beyond the financial implications? In particular, what are the social benefits of a college degree?
It’s been well-documented that since World War II Americans’ social circles have shrunk: People have fewer friends, even fewer close friends, and less participation in social organizations (for a good book on this, I recommend Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam). But the Survey Center’s poll found that the declines are less dramatic for individuals with a college degree. For example, in 1990 64% of people without a college degree said that they have five or more close friends, versus 59% for those with a college degree. But in 2021, that number has plummeted to 34% for those without a college degree, compared to 47% with a degree.
There is also a significant “loneliness gap”: 45% of those without a degree say that they have felt isolated from others at least sometimes in the past four weeks, compared to only 36%. Sixty-six percent of Americans with a college degree claim to have a high degree of social support, versus only 52% of those without one. Similarly, today about two-thirds of adults over 25 with a college degree are married, compared to only half of those without a degree. In 1990, both figures were in the mid-60s.
The report details some significant differences in where the two groups tend to meet friends: College-educated individuals meet friends more often at work, school, and clubs, where those without a degree meet friends more often through other friends and in their neighborhood.
In a similar vein, college-educated individuals are more likely to have a “third place” where they often hang out: a coffee shop, bar, restaurant, park, or another public place. And those with college degrees tend to be more active in their community and are more likely to know a community leader.
There were some surprises in the study results. The racial diversity of one’s social circles does not seem to correlate with whether someone has a college degree. Also, while membership in religious organizations has dropped significantly in the past few decades, it dropped less for people with college degrees — upending conventional wisdom that advanced education tends to make someone less religious.
While interesting, this study should be taken with some caveats. First, it tends to fall into the classic pitfall of confusing correlation with causation; it often assumes that the college degree is the reason why the social differences occur, whereas it may be that the characteristics that cause someone to seek a college degree may overlap with those that cause them to seek out a larger social circle. This gets even more confusing when we bring back into the equation the financial aspects: For example, does the higher disposable income often associated with a college degree (or the less need to take more than one job) make it easier for college-educated individuals to have a “third place”? The report also dives into a previously documented finding that people feel less connected to their community when there is visible litter and graffiti; but which comes first, the lack of connection or the litter and graffiti?
We also need to remember that 2021, the middle of a pandemic, was a unique time in history to be collecting data on individuals’ social circles. Some of the data presented in the report shows that the most recent data is consistent with long-term trends; but where it doesn’t, we need to consider whether the gaps are exacerbated by measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19.
And finally, we need to consider the source. The Survey Center on American Life is an arm of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative-leaning think tank. While they claim that their survey work is nonpartisan, we always need to scrutinize where the money is coming from to pay for a study like this as it can color the results. For instance, this report’s inclusion of the section mentioned above looking at connection to community and the presence of litter and graffiti echoes long-standing talking points about “broken windows theory” — which ultimately leads to arguments about cracking down on small crimes to improve social cohesiveness. Broken windows theory is controversial and far from widely accepted, especially related to its relevance to policing practices. The fact that this report comes from AEI does not necessarily mean that the data presented is wrong or inaccurate, but it does mean that we need to ask why they funded the research and whether the conclusions drawn are appropriate.
Still, the study presents an interesting approach to widening the discussion about the value of a college degree beyond simply the finances: A degree can create more job opportunities and more income (and often more student debt), but it could have much broader effects on one’s social life.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
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