The False Divide Between “Well Educated” and “Less Educated”

When imprecise language confuses, conflates, and excludes.

Through a field green with grass and tall bushes, train tracks run through the center, disappearing in the horizon.

By Steve Bien-Aimé • August 1, 2017


Media commentators have spent the past few months opining on the chasm between the economically rich and poor—more specifically, the so-called well educated versus the less educated. I, too, want to offer my thoughts, albeit from an inclusive-language perspective. As a language scholar, I’m always interested in how words can elevate people or tear groups down.

Journalists and other advanced-degree holders have resorted to labeling others as “poorly educated” or, worse, “uneducated.” A June 13 Washington Post article on smoking demographics reported that formal-education attainment is correlated with smoking. The article said that the benefits from decreased smoking have helped millions “unless those Americans are poor, uneducated or live in a rural area.” The article explains what “less educated” means, sort of: “those with a high-school-equivalency diploma.”

People who live in rural areas are not necessarily poor or uneducated.

This conflates a lot of data. People who live in rural areas are not necessarily poor or uneducated. In fact, in the same piece, a smoking-cessation expert was quoted as saying that stress over family and money contributed greatly to tobacco addiction.

But this column isn’t about who smokes and who doesn’t smoke. It’s about who gets to call somebody educated and uneducated. Linguistic and cultural scholars would argue that this power comes to those who have power in society. Dictionaries hold a lot of linguistic power, so let’s take a look at one.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines uneducated as “having or showing little or no formal schooling.” Before exploring why some view uneducated as a pejorative, it’s difficult to even agree who is uneducated. According to the U.S. Department of Education, roughly a quarter of U.S. adults 25 and older (22.6 percent of men and 26.3 percent of women) had completed at least high school in 1940. It could be said then that folks with high school degrees were highly educated.

Some of the richest people in the world are “less educated,” including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

Today, most people have a high school diploma. In the 2014–15 school year, 83 percent of students earned high school degrees with their cohorts. That is a significant gain from 1940, but the value of high school degrees has diminished. Many occupations now require a college degree when, decades ago, a high school degree was sufficient (example: journalist). Some argue that many jobs designated for college graduates actually do not require a college education.

However, why is the distinction between “well educated” and “poorly educated”? If the overwhelming majority of people have high school degrees, then why aren’t high school graduates called “sufficiently educated,” for example? A record 33.4 percent of American adults now have college degrees; that means two-thirds of the adult population don’t—and, by extension, are “less educated.”

Some of the richest people in the world are “less educated,” including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Do not interpret this piece as a condemnation of college degrees. As a university professor, I encourage people to attend college as I believe that the benefits of higher education serve people well throughout their lives. Gates himself encourages people to attend colleges and universities while noting that there are many reasons why people don’t attend or finish college. (A good primer on higher-education issues is Paying the Price by Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab.)

We could be precise and just identify people’s actual education levels.

Perhaps one of the reasons we’re experiencing societal polarization is because we’re not using inclusive language more. People catch on to euphemisms, and calling folks “less educated” is akin to calling them stupider than another group. In fact, it’s downright cruel to practice what in many cases equates to privilege shaming.

I know I would not listen to people who discount my experiences because of some arbitrary standard. We could be precise and just identify people’s actual education levels. As people who seek to engage in inclusivity, let’s not privilege college degrees ahead of less formal but important life experiences.

Steve is smiling in a sky-blue button-down shirt.Steve Bien-Aimé is an assistant professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University. Before receiving his doctorate from Penn State’s College of Communications, Steve worked as a copy editor at The News Journal in Delaware and The Baltimore Sun and served in a variety of functions at, departing as deputy NFL editor. His research interests include race and gender portrayals in news and sports media.

White type on sky-blue background.


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