National Edition

To increase education attainment: restore middle-class clout

Published: Tuesday, June 4 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

Strong middle class tied to higher-ed funding.

Deseret News, Center for American Progress

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State spending on colleges and universities declined by 28 percent since 2007, but perhaps not for the reason usually cited. Simply blaming the Great Recession might mean missing a larger story — a weakened middle class that lacks the political clout to exercise its will, according to David Madland, co-author of a May issues statement from the Center for American Progress think tank in Washington, D.C.

Declining investments in education threaten U.S. economic competitiveness because more students are being priced out of college, said Madland, an economic policy expert. It’s one reason other nations are surpassing the U.S. in educational attainment, he said.

Americans whose earnings fall between 20 and 80 on a percentile scale have experienced flattening or falling incomes since 2007, but their expenses kept rising over the same period, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In the meantime, the political power of the wealthiest Americans increased dramatically, say a host of studies from such sources as Princeton and Yale universities. And those extra-comfortable Americans don’t feel the hurt of spiraling tuition costs the way middle-class and low-income families do.

“The wealthy care about education, but paying for it isn’t as high a priority for them,” Madland said. “When tough choices need to be made, the choice of the wealthy is not to drop everything else and fund higher education. But the middle class wants more education spending — because to them, increased tuition has been a big burden.”

Princeton University political scientist Martin Gilens analyzed the results of decades of polling between the mid-1960s and early 2000s, and found that the wealthy were consistently less supportive of taxes and government spending and taxes than the middle class.

"In general, affluent Americans prefer more market-oriented policies than do the less-well-off," Gilens said. "That plays out in education in several ways. In the K-12 arena there is greater support for school vouchers and education reforms."

Gilens said wealthy Americans are more likely to place responsibility on the individual for figuring out how to achieve higher education goals through savings plans and loans. This group also is more likely to support for-profit business models for higher education, Gilens said.

Madland holds that disinvestment in higher education is causing a dangerous stagnation in education attainment. In 2010, about 41 percent of Americans aged 55 to 64 held college degrees, but the share of 25- to 34-year-old Americans with college degrees had barely increased, standing at 42 percent. While educational attainment in the U.S. has been at a standstill, other nations have seen progress, Madland’s report said. Canada, for instance, has seen a 14 percent gain in education attainment between similarly aged groups over the same time period.

Madland said loss of middle-class political clout is a root cause.

An analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that the 10 states with the strongest middle classes — defined by share of income going to the middle 60 percent of households — spend more on higher education than the 10 states with the weakest middle classes.

And, the link between loss of middle-class clout and declining state investment in higher education is a self-reinforcing phenomenon, Madland said. States with strong middle classes invest in higher education, and that strengthens their middle classes even more. States with weak middle classes invest less, thus keeping the middle class weak. That’s true for wealthy states like California, and for poor states, like Mississippi, he said.

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