Louis Soares has a good column up on the CAP website about the vital importance of the goal President Obama set for the United States to start increasing the proportion of the population that has a college degree. A significant portion of the story about growing inequality has to do with the fact that as demand for college-educated workers has increased, the United States hasn’t really increased the supply of such workers. Consequently, the wage differential, which was always significant, has gotten bigger-and-bigger. We’ve seen other forms of inequality growth that have to do with the super-elite pulling away from the vast majority of people, but alongside that there’s been a steady drift of the mass upper class of college educated professionals away from the middle class pack.
The main point I would make about this is that it’s crucially important to broaden the discussion here away from monomaniacal focus on the cost of college education. This is an important financial burden on many richer-than-average families, which makes it a politically appealing topic. But the evidence suggests that the main reason our rate of degree-attainment has been stagnating is that too few people who start college end up finishing college. And though money doubtless plays a role in some of this, the main problem is lack of preparation. There’s a need to both improve the performance of the earlier years of our system—from pre-K on forward—and to improve the performance of our colleges and universities, especially those that serve the low end of the market. In an ideal world, of course, every 12 grader would be perfectly well-prepared and colleges wouldn’t need to worry about that. But we need our institutions of higher education to serve the population we actually have, and that requires more transparency about what’s really going and more of an ethic of responsibility on the part of administrators.