Michael Gerson: An education challenge for the GOP

Oklahoman Published: April 30, 2014
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In one of the lower policy points during the 2012 Republican primary campaign, Rick Santorum told a tea party group, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

It was a complex electoral maneuver: Take a fragile middle-class expectation — and a powerful immigrant and working-class hope — and make it into an object of populist derision. Do you really want all that pipe smoking and port sipping and late-night dorm planning to undermine the Constitution?

Santorum was, in fact, the GOP candidate most conspicuously attempting to address working-class concerns. But the paradox only heightened the symbolism. Americans seek a valuable but increasingly overpriced good for their children. Republicans answer with a heaping helping of ideology. The indifference hurts as much as the issue.

Recent figures indicate that growing numbers of high school graduates are taking Santorum’s career advice. The share of high school graduates (66 percent) entering college last fall was the lowest since 2006. This may be the result, in part, of improving job prospects for those without post-secondary education. But it is difficult, in an economy that places a premium on skills, to regard a smaller aggregate stock of skills as a positive development. We should want more people to go to college — and to find effective apprenticeships, occupational certificates and job training.

A steady rise in the percentage of people who graduate from high school is one of the (rare) success stories in American education. The graduation rate increased from 71.7 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2012, with serious gains for Hispanic and African-American students. Maintaining this trajectory, graduation rates could reach 90 percent by 2020.

But after high school, what then? The benefits of a college education — in wages, employment levels, and avoiding poverty — remain comparatively robust, but largely because the prospects of those with a high school diploma have dimmed. In 1979, according to the Pew Research Center, the typical high school graduate earned 77 percent of what a college graduate made. Among millennials, that figure is now 62 percent.

For the poor, a college degree remains an important avenue of upward mobility. But for those in the middle class, the aspiration of a diploma is increasingly mixed with fear. The economic returns of a college degree are stagnant. Many who hold one are underemployed. Still, the alternative is worse.

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