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Can Falling Supply Explain the Rising Return to College for Younger Men? A Cohort-Based Analysis

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  • David Card
  • Thomas Lemieux

Abstract

Although the college-high school wage gap for younger men has doubled over the past 30 years, the gap for older men has remained nearly constant. We argue that these shifts reflect changes in the relative supply of highly-educated workers across age groups. Cohorts born in the first half of the century had steadily rising educational attainments that offset rising demand for better-educated workers. This trend ended abruptly in the early 1950s and has only recently resumed. Using a model with imperfect substitution between similarly-educated workers in different age groups, we show that a slowdown in the rate of growth of educational attainment across cohorts will lead to a rise in the return to college for young workers that eventually works its way through the age distribution. This prediction is remarkably consistent with data for the U.S. over the period from 1959 to 1995. Estimates based on a version of the model with two education groups high school equivalent and college equivalent workers suggest that the elasticity of substitution between different age groups is large but finite (around 5) while the elasticity of substitution between the two education groups is about 2.5. We also examine data for the United Kingdom and Canada: both countries experienced similar slowdowns in the rate of growth of educational attainment. Results from these countries are comparable to the U.S. findings, and underscore the importance of cohort-specific relative supplies in interpreting movements in education-related wage differentials.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 7655.

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Date of creation: Apr 2000
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Publication status: published as Card, David and Thomas Lemieux. "Can Falling Supply Explain The Rising Return To College For Younger Men? A Cohort-Based Analysis," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2001, v116(2,May), 705-746.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7655

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  1. George J. Borjas & Richard B. Friedman & Lawrence F. Katz, 1997. "How Much Do Immigration and Trade Affect Labor Market Outcomes?," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 28(1), pages 1-90.
  2. Riddell, W.C., 1993. "Unionization in Canada and the United States: A Tale of Two Countries," Papers 1993-1, Queen's at Kingston - Sch. of Indus. Relat. Papers in Industrial Relations.
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  7. Welch, Finis, 1979. "Effects of Cohort Size on Earnings: The Baby Boom Babies' Financial Bust," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 87(5), pages S65-97, October.
  8. George E. Johnson, 1997. "Changes in Earnings Inequality: The Role of Demand Shifts," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 11(2), pages 41-54, Spring.
  9. Richard B. Freeman & Karen Needels, 1993. "Skill Differentials in Canada in an Era of Rising Labor Market Inequality," NBER Chapters, in: Small Differences That Matter: Labor Markets and Income Maintenance in Canada and the United States, pages 45-68 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  11. Finis Welch, 1979. "Effects of Cohort Size on Earnings: The Baby Boom Babies' Financial Bust," UCLA Economics Working Papers 146, UCLA Department of Economics.
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