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Election 2016

Why Are There So Many White Young American Men Without College Degrees?

Young white men without college degrees could throw the election. But how are they still such a dominant group?

[Photo: mikeledray via Shutterstock]

The country is divided any which way you look at it. Some of it is generational, some of it is cultural, and some of it is geographic.

And some of it, it turns out, is what you might call educational. According to numbers cited by the New York Times earlier this month, young white American men without college degrees overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. Men and women without college degrees accounted for nearly half the electorate in 2012, or roughly 64 million people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 97 million white people, 60 million men of a variety of races, and 23 million white men and women between the ages of 25 to 34 do not have an associates degree or higher. This gives some context for how many millions of young white men in the country have not gone beyond high school. Now this powerful demographic could determine the 2016 outcome. The Times's Nate Cohn doesn’t mince words: "It’s enough to keep the election close. It could even be enough for him to win."

While we could ask why they support Trump, perhaps more telling is, why are there still so many of them?

This Isn’t A New Problem

Diagnosing why there are so many isn’t so simple. But a lot of it has to do with a series of economic and cultural issues from the last few decades.

Dewayne Matthews, the vice president of strategy at the Lumina Foundation, a private organization working to expand access to post-secondary education, offered several thoughts when I called him up. Since the 1980s, the number of young men who pursue higher education has increased only slightly; since 1991, women with college degrees outnumber men; in 2014, it was 34% to 26%.

And this situation is not unique to the U.S. The widening gap between young men and women with degrees is occurring in "all industrial and post-industrial countries," Matthews said. "It’s spreading even into the developing world."

Why? "Structural shifts in the economy," according to Matthews. In the early- to mid-20th century, the U.S. was an industrial nation where young men with a high school diploma could find jobs that earned them middle-class incomes. "You could get those jobs in a lot of sectors," Matthews explained, citing manufacturing, natural resources, and forestry. "These were jobs that were held mostly by men—paid very good wages—and didn’t require post-secondary education."

Now the job market has drastically shifted and demands a workforce with at least some specialized skill. Demand for entry-level positions in dying industries like mining and factory work is waning, while sectors like computer science and engineering are continually ramping up. Matthews told me the story of an energy company CEO who began his tenure at the company reading energy meters. "Now," he said, "the meter reads itself." Which is to say that technology has made some jobs obsolete, all while increasing the need for specialized skills for even entry-level positions.

And still, many young men continue to opt out of post-secondary opportunities. "You’re talking about generations of families in communities that were built around a certain type of work," Matthews said. Changing the culture of what young men do—or imagine they can do—for a living takes time. So is it any wonder that so many men from working-class backgrounds are heartened by Trump's promises that he will bring back coal jobs?

Reframing The Issue

Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, sees a more systemic problem. While it's true there are many young white men who haven't gone beyond high school, they are part of a larger group of low-income U.S. citizens. "The poor," she said, "have a lower likelihood to get a college education." And while there are a great deal of white men who fit this description, there are even more people of color—men and women—who do. In 2015, 54% of Caucasians between the ages of 25 and 29 had associates degrees or higher, compared to 31% of African-Americans and 26% of Hispanics.

She added that there’s a prevalent perception by the white male population that they still could be able to earn an income with no advanced education. "The problem with that outlook," she said, "is that the world has changed." If people don’t invest in acquiring technical skills, they will be left behind. "Given that perception and given this reality," Smith said, "there needs to be better ways of encouraging low-income white males to enter college."

This perception is likely what leads these uneducated white men toward supporting more conservative candidates. "We've found," she said, "that there's usually a disconnect between the politics of a question and the economics." In terms of why non-educated white men may support Trump, they likely feel threatened by the growing demographic of non-white people who could, they imagine, hypothetically take their resources and opportunities. "For people who might have enjoyed positions of privilege," she said, "based solely on their race or ethnicity status . . . it could be disconcerting." There are only so many non-skilled jobs for them, the rationale goes. So Trump's anti-immigration stance may speak to low-income white people who feel threatened by the prospect of an increasingly ethnically diverse country, regardless of the fact that this reality wouldn't actually hinder their future employment opportunities.

All the same, given the disproportionate number of white people who do graduate college (or beyond) compared with people of color, it is crucial that we focus this lack of secondary education toward everyone in the low-income bracket, regardless of race.

And it’s even more important to consider gender. College-goers, said Smith, are "overwhelmingly women." In fact, according to the Census Bureau, 30.2% of women in 2014 had bachelors degrees or higher compared to 29.9% of men. The problem, said Smith, is that "you’re not seeing enough males, period."

In response, some states have been implementing programs designed to incentivize people to go to college. Matthews pointed to Indiana, which launched a scholarship program called "21st Century Scholars" that significantly boosted secondary education attendance. But, he added, "There’s still a long way to go."

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