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A Stronger Middle Class Leads to More Investment in Postsecondary Education

A Stronger Middle Class Leads to More Investment in Postsecondary Education

The rise in U.S. income inequality and the decline of the American middle class have skewed public policy toward the wishes of the rich and contributed to underinvestment in higher education.

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State spending on colleges and universities has dropped off sharply in recent years. Most people blame the Great Recession and its effect on state budgets for this decline, but this misses the larger story. We are underinvesting in education because the middle class has weakened and no longer has the political power necessary to translate its desires into actions. And this underinvestment threatens our economic competitiveness as more students are priced out of college and other countries surpass us in educational attainment.

Polling strongly suggests that the American public would prefer higher levels of spending on higher education. A Brookings Institution/Northeastern University poll conducted in October 2012, for example, found that 70 percent of the public felt that a college education is very or extremely important for achieving the American Dream, with an additional 24 percent saying it is somewhat important. Not surprisingly, the poll found that 81 percent of Americans believe the government needs to invest more in America’s higher education system. Other polls show similarly high figures: The General Social Survey, for example, a longstanding academic survey, finds that 72 percent of Americans support spending more on education.

So if the public wants more education spending, why hasn’t the government been more responsive and boosted spending?


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David Madland

Senior Fellow; Senior Adviser, American Worker Project

Nick Bunker

Research Associate