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The value Americans place on intellectual achievement is open to question these days, particularly as we argue over the amount of resources the nation's schools need to give children an adequate education. Only after wading through a mess of mixed cultural signals can we begin to address the question. Ours is a society, for instance, that frequently pays college football and basketball coaches salaries many times higher than that of teachers. Popular entertainment, more often than not, celebrates the antics of morons, and almost always puts looks before brains. The unfortunate message to young people, and the one that seems to get through to young males in particular is this: forget about education, being good-looking or good at sports is your ticket to power, adoration and wealth.

Now, ever expanding divides have begun to splinter Americans into more and more opposing forces. Red against Blue, the interests of the aging versus the needs of the younger, and the well-heeled haves versus laboring have-nots, for example. What's more, another profoundly polarizing trend seems to be lying in wait according to the Census Bureau's latest available report on educational attainment, one that none too subtly pits gender against gender.

As is true with all trend lines, however, their true meaning and the unnerving ramifications only become evident when forward projections are examined. Still, even today, the real message in the census data could not be clearer: ignore any infotainment to the contrary; almost any investment in education pays off big-time in our society. As with any critical communication, however, only part of the intended audience is listening.

First, the demographic backdrop: In 2003, there was virtually the same number of men as women ages 25 to 34 (19.56 million men versus 19.68 million women, a difference of about 115,000 or 0.6 percent), the Census Bureau reveals.

But, 25 percent more men in that age group than women never got a high school diploma, a difference of 560,000. There was also a greater number of men than women (660,000 or 12 percent more) who did not pursue higher education after graduating from high school.

The gender gap for college degrees is also widening. At the two-year college level, 24 percent more women than men ages 25 to 34 have earned an associate's degree, a difference of about 360,000. More women in that age cohort also have bachelor's degrees as well: 14 percent more, a difference of about 580,000. Less than 10 percent of men or women this age have graduate degrees, but women with advanced degrees exceed men by 21 percent, a difference of about 280,000.

In all, over 2 million men ages 25 to 34 could have earned a high school diploma, two-year, four-year or graduate degree if they had elected to stay in school as women did. About 42 percent of women in this age cohort have a college degree, for example, compared with less than 36 percent of men. According to the Census Bureau report, this gender gap in higher education did not exist 10 years ago.

The long-term economic consequences of this trend are profound.

First, there is the issue of getting a job and keeping it. Ninety percent of men ages 25 to 34 were in the workforce in 2003. Among those who had not completed high school, 10.7 percent were unemployed, as were 7.8 percent of the high school graduates. In contrast, only 3.5 percent of those with a two-year degree or higher were unemployed. Nearly half a million men ages 25 to 34 might have avoided unemployment last year had they stayed in school.

Unless they are extraordinarily bright and resourceful, a person without some demonstrable skill beyond a high school degree can look forward to a lifetime of periodic unemployment and annual earnings that may or may not even keep up with inflation.

This is partly because shareholders continue to put pressure on any large employer to lower labor costs by scaling back on low-skilled workers, particularly if it is a public company. For example, investment analysts continue to take discount retailer Costco to task because it pays its workers a bit better than its competitors. A minimally skilled worker is at a severe economic disadvantage in such a competitive arena.

The second long-term economic consequence for those 2 million or more men who fail to advance beyond high school is that they will be shut out of many of the high-growth and high-paying jobs the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects will be created over the next decade.

During the next 10 years, the highest rate of job growth will occur among professional and related occupations, according to BLS projections. More than 600,000 new jobs will open up each year in that category between now and 2012, almost all of them only available to those with a college degree.

According to the March 2003 Census Bureau survey, a 25- to 34-year-old man with a high school diploma earned an average of about $31,000 a year. A two-year college degree would have added, on average, $5,800 a year and a four-year degree would have meant $17,600 more. A graduate degree would have more than doubled his income by adding $34,700 a year. Not graduating high school would have subtracted $8,800 from his average earnings.

If we apply the gender gap numbers for college degrees we analyzed earlier, we can calculate how much more would have been available annually to save, to spend on consumer goods, or in other ways, if men were to graduate from college at the same rate as women.

That is not to suggest that everyone should go to college. Even today, it's only a minority of women who achieve the college degree level. But, it seems reasonable that men and women should attend college at the same rate.

At the two-year associate's degree level, the gender gap of about 360,000 times $8,800 a year equals about $2.1 billion in lost wages. At the bachelor's degree level the gap of 580,000 times $17,600 adds another $5.1 billion. Only a few workers this age have graduate degrees, but the difference of 280,000 times $34,700 adds another $9.7 billion. Finally, if the 560,000 high school dropouts had just finished school it could have added another $4.9 billion to their earnings. The total in wages lost for males ages 25 to 34 reaches nearly $22 billion a year.

Admittedly, this is a back-of-the-envelope estimate of the economic cost for just one 10-year age cohort of those men who chose not to stay in school. But, even scarier to deal with, those men are at the beginning of their working life. Billions of dollars in lack of earning power among this million-plus group of men will cost them and our economy dearly over the next 30 years, just at a time when we will need every dime to pay the cost of Social Security for Baby Boomers.

But, as a nation, we have an even more important problem than benefits for aging Boomers. The vital question is this: At a time when the United States' global competitiveness is already so vulnerable, can we really afford to foster such negative attitudes about the value of intellectual achievement, and have over 2 million men starting out life with inadequate skills?

Peter Francese is the founder of American Demographics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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