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Higher education matters more than ever

Education actually does matter. A lot.

That is the gist of "The Undereducated American," a report released by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Specifically, higher education matters. It matters in America and it matters for the future. And, as the report's authors conclude, the lack of education matters, too.

"The United States has been underproducing college-going workers since 1980," they report. "Supply has failed to keep pace with growing demand, and as a result, income inequality has grown precipitously."

Education has always mattered, of course, but it matters even more in the current historical moment for two very important reasons:

* The earnings gap between high school graduates and college graduates has nearly doubled since 1980 — from a 40 percent difference to a 76 percent difference.

* The demand for college-educated workers has increased dramatically in our economy while the rates of college attendance have been almost stagnant, leading to economic inefficiency that threatens to slow economic growth dramatically over the next 15 years.

The earnings gap touches the foundations of American democracy. By its foundational principles, America rejected both monarchy (the hereditary transfer of power) and aristocracy (the hereditary transfer of privilege). As long as higher education remains the primary vehicle for social movement, then deep discrepancies in educational opportunity subvert the foundations of democracy itself. They create precisely the permanent, multigenerational, self-perpetuating class structure that America was founded not to be.

The second conclusion of the report is just as disturbing. As a result of undereducation, the American workforce is becoming less competitive. Our own economy produces, and will continue to produce, more jobs for college-educated workers than the American workforce can fill. The wage premium for American workers with college degrees will continue to rise, and the portion of this wage premium that American workers cannot absorb will go to places such as China and India, where college-going rates have been increasing dramatically.

This means that the implicit assumption of both federal and state governments since the 1980s — that higher education is primarily a private good that benefits individuals more than it does society in general — is demonstrably false. Profound income inequalities have tremendous social consequences, and as the gap between high school- and college-educated workers continues to grow, we will discover just how costly those consequences are. And if we allow half of the income for nearly 20 million jobs to disappear from our economy altogether, we will all pay a significant price for the loss.

But there is much good news in the report as well. Over the next 15 years, the American economy will produce enough jobs for all Americans who are qualified for those jobs. If we take steps now to ensure access to higher education for more Americans, we can all reap the benefits that come with full employment.

It is sometimes hard, in a time of economic crisis, to believe that things will be good again. But they will be. Or at least they can be.

America will have the opportunity to thrive and prosper again — but only if we hold fast to our own democratic principles and make sure that our workforce is prepared for success.