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Education, skill-set are key to closing the gap in wealth

  • Feb 22, 2015
  • Rick Harper
Man standing by the bay in between two palm trees Man standing by the bay in between two palm trees

By now it’s old news: “It’s never been more important to get a good education than it is today.” But it bears repeating because all of the indicators point in the same direction. The share of national gross domestic income paid as wages and salaries peaked in 1978 at almost 52 percent and has declined steadily to 42 percent in 2013. The strong positive relationship between education and income shows up in Florida as it does across the nation. The data below for our 67 counties show that an increase of 1 percent (say, from 25 to 26 percent) in the share of the population with university degrees is associated on average with an $874 increase in average annual income per capita. Further, the gap between those with more education and those with less has steadily increased over the years. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which tracks this issue, finds that the gap in earnings between bachelor’s degree holders and high school graduates is now at 65 percent over the course of a 40-year career. It is a 27 percent gap for an associate degree holder versus the high school degree holder. The trend toward a greater income gap was seen in the national data when the September 2014 Federal Reserve Bulletin reported the results of the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances. Between 2010 and 2013, the economy grew at an inflation-adjusted annual rate of 2.1 percent, while the unemployment rate fell from 9.9 to 7.5 percent. Overall average family income rose 4 percent over that period, but median family income fell by 5 percent, reflecting an increased income concentration. That fall in median income was not distributed evenly. Families reporting a college degree registered a 1 percent increase in inflation-adjusted median income, from $79,100 in before-tax median income in 2010 to $80,000 in 2013. Households reporting no high school diploma, high school diploma, and some college, had -9, -6, and -11 percent changes, respectively, in median family income over the 2010-2013 period. Those households reported $22,300, $37,000 and $40,900 per year in median household income in 2013, respectively. The divergence in income also is associated with a divergence in wealth. Median family net worth measured $17,200, $52,500, $46,900 and $219,400 in 2013 for no high school diploma, high school diploma, some college, and college degree households, respectively. The takeaway is that there is an income gap and there is an even more pronounced wealth gap. They are both growing, and the winners in the 21st century job market will be those with more education, job-related skills and competencies. If the differences in earnings are so stark, why doesn’t everybody get a bachelor’s degree? Transitioning lower- and middle-income children into well-educated higher earning adults is not an easy task. Families’ ability to pay is falling at the same time that the cost of education is rising. The federal government publishes consumer price indexes for education and for all items. Over the 1993 to 2014 period, the CPI for all items rose by 66 percent. The CPI for education rose by 207 percent over the same period. The CPI for medical care rose by 123 percent over the same period. The Survey of Consumer Finance data noted that education debt is one of the few measures to have increased substantially between 2010 and 2013. A 12-year look back shows that in 2001, about 22.4 percent of young households (i.e., headed by someone less than 40 years old) had education debt. By 2013, that share had increased to 38.8 percent. Of those young families with education debt, the mean amount increased from $16,900 in 2001 to $29,800 in 2013. Santa Rosa County ranked 18th among the 67 Florida counties in 2012 in terms of the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, while Escambia ranks 24th. Not surprisingly, we ranked 22nd (Escambia) and 23rd (Santa Rosa) in terms of per capita personal income. The counties that ranked above us in income averaged 29.7 percent of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, while those counties ranking below us in income averaged 14.6 percent of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Scholars find that the stagnation in U.S. income growth rates is due partly to a slowdown in educational attainment growth and partly to other factors, such as globalization and automation. Which means that tomorrow’s winners will clearly be those with the best skills. Rick Harper serves as director of the Studer Community Institute, a Pensacola-based organization that seeks citizen-powered solutions to challenges the community faces. He also directs the University of West Florida’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement in Pensacola.

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