Commentator Robert Reich says access to college is being squeezed at a time the country needs it the most.
Commentator Robert Reich says access to college is being squeezed at a time the country needs it the most. - 
Listen To The Story

Kai Ryssdal: If you're in college or if you have a child in college for whom you want only the best, you're not going to like this news. The Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank in Washingon, released a study today showing wages for college graduates have fallen over the past decade more than 10 percent for some.

Be that as it may, commentator Robert Reich says a college education is still the key to a brighter future.

Robert Reich: Rick Santorum has called President Obama "a snob" for wanting everyone to get a college education. But Santorum needn't worry. America is already making it harder for young people of modest means to attend college. Forty-one states are cutting spending for public higher education this year -- and tuition and fees are rising as a result.

The children of middle and lower-income families are hardest hit. Federal education grants are shrinking, and student debt is skyrocketing.

Yet a four-year college degree now marks the great divide in America. Unemployment among college grads is just under 5 percent, but it's over 9 percent for those without college degrees. And the median pay of college grads is 70 percent higher than those with a high school diploma.

Public higher education isn't just an investment in individuals. It's a public good. Our young peoples' capacities to think, investigate, and innovate are America's future. We understood this during the great expansion of public universities between the 1950s and 1970s -- when tuition averaged about 4 percent of median family income.

Today public university tuition gobbles up 25 percent. Many qualified young people are discouraged from attending college at a time when America needs the brainpower of its young people more than ever.

So what's the answer? Public universities can surely be more efficient. But we should also charge higher tuition for students from higher-income families. The extra money can be used to subsidize medium and lower-income kids.

Part of the answer also has to be more government support for public higher education. This requires more tax revenues -- especially from Americans best able to pay.

Call me old fashioned, but I think America's richest citizens owe kids from middle and lower-income families the chance to make it in America -- especially when wealth and income are more concentrated at the top than they've been since the 1920s.

We'll all gain from it. But if our young can no longer afford college, we all lose.

Ryssdal: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is called "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." Let us know what you think -- write to us.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.