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To increase education attainment: restore middle-class clout

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

Polls show that as many as 81 percent of middle-class Americans think the government should invest more in higher education, according to the Center for American Progress. Upwards of 75 percent of U.S. college students use the public higher education system, but wealthy families tend to send their children to elite private schools, and lack self-interest in making sure public institutions are adequately funded, said education and economics expert Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a non-partisan think tank with progressive goals.

At the federal level, increasing investments in higher education runs counter to conservative arguments that federal spending for higher education is to blame for rising college costs, however. Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett famously argued in 1987 that increases in financial aid enable colleges and universities to raise tuition, by allowing federal loan subsidies to cushion those increases.

Kahlenberg disagrees, though. College tuition prices have been increasing for the past 30 years, he said — during Democratic administrations when there is strong support for grants and loans to low-income students, and during Republican administrations when such support dwindles.

“I haven’t seen strong evidence linking increases in Pell grants and federal aid, and rising higher education prices,” he said.

At the state level, declining investment in higher education squeezes the middle class because families must figure out how to pay rising tuition costs, Madland wrote in an August 2012 Center for American Progress report.

Shifting tuition burdens onto the backs of middle- and low-income students has dire impacts on society, Madland concluded. Saddling a generation of students with very high levels of debt will have repercussions throughout their lives, he said, causing young people to postpone marriage and home purchases.

The report makes practical recommendations that don’t require significant government investment: creating incentives for colleges to limit their net per-student price to 15 percent of a family’s income; awarding college credit for proven knowledge and skills to save tuition costs; and giving families better information about college costs, debt loads and likely job prospects.

In an essay for Boston Review, Gilens wrote that surrendering political power to the wealthiest Americans moves public policy in a conservative direction on many issues, but not all.

"On moral and religious issues, the well off tend to be more liberal than the poor," Gilens wrote. "More equal representation would consequently lead to greater restrictions on abortion, such as banning RU-486. There would also be tighter limits on stem cell research and more support for school prayer."

To help the middle class finds its political voice, Gilens suggests "competition-enhancing reforms such as nonpartisan districting and nonpartisan get-out-the-vote drives" as proven ways of producing competitive elections that could cause politicians to listen to their constituents as closely as their campaign contributors.

Madland has ideas for helping the middle class increase its clout, too. He recommends that middle-class voters increase their participation in politics, tell politicians what they care about, vote at higher rates and work for reform of campaign financing laws that favor the wealthy.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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