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To increase education attainment: restore middle-class clout

Strong middle class tied to higher-ed funding.
Strong middle class tied to higher-ed funding.
Deseret News, Center for American Progress

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.

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.