Thomas Edsall wrote an excellent piece for the New York Times yesterday that is packed with data (and charts) showing how the high price of college access today, combined with a dramatic rise in recent years in the college premium—the difference in annual earnings of a high school graduate and a college graduate—is contributing to growing increasing income inequality and reinforcing class stratification in the U.S.
Edsell believes this problem presents a political challenge—or opportunity—for candidates running for office in 2012:
Politically, the lack of access to a four-year college education is a crucial problem for one of the key battleground constituencies of 2012: whites without college degrees. Several issues that can be mined by enterprising politicians cluster around this debilitating lack of access — in fact they help cause it — including the enormous debt loads carried by students and recent graduates, as well as the emergence of for-profit colleges saddling low-income students with loans for programs they cannot complete. The data show that a disproportionately large percentage of young adults from working-class families who, according to their test scores and grade point averages, are equipped to earn a B.A., are either not going to college, or failing to finish — relegating them to a life of stagnant or declining wages. There is a reservoir of resentment over this fate waiting to be tapped by either party.
The question is whether candidates will attempt to simply exploit that resentment without actually addressing the underlying problem—as some already have—or actually try to do something about it.