The More You Learn, The More You Earn

Trouble is afoot for middle-class workers. You don't have to go far to hear people talking about it.

In today's Wall Street Journal, for example, David Wessel writes that middle-class earnings are taking a beating: "... the fact is that the remarkable burst of productivity of the past decade has not been widely shared with the women or men living at the middle of the American middle class."

In October Wessel wrote a piece about why jobs are "sagging in the middle": "As Harvard economists Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin put it recently, 'U.S. employment has been polarizing into high-wage and low-wage jobs at the expense of traditional middle-class jobs.'"

Toward the end of both stories, he mentions what I see as a big part of the solution: education.

Preserving the Middle Class

In today's piece Wessel explains that women have gradually been closing the pay gap with men, yet:

the men and women at the statistical middle of the middle haven't done all that well. The typical man earned $42,261 last year, which is 2.7% more than the typical man earned in 1996, adjusted for inflation. For women, it's $32,515, up 7.1% -- better, not great. In the same decade, output per hour of work, known as productivity, climbed nearly 30%. ...

But the noteworthy gap is between workers with education and workers without, regardless of gender. The payoff for getting a diploma traditionally has been greater for women (in the past, some men got high-paid blue-collar jobs), and that's still true. The bigger story is how much more valuable a college diploma is than it was 30 years ago, and how much of a penalty a worker pays for not going to college.

Wessel is right. The increasing value of a college degree is the big story--it will only get bigger--we have to consider in striving to preserve the middle class. I wrote a piece in August that notes how, between 1980-2005, people with bachelor's degrees earned more than those with less education.

The Role of Community Colleges

Meanwhile, college degrees are growing more expensive. According to the College Board, the average 2007-2008 college costs at a private four-year school are $23,712, up 6.3 percent from last year; costs at public four-year institutions are up 6.6 percent, to $6,185. But the College Board notes that though "private four-year institutions have a much wider range of tuition and fee charges, only about 6 percent of all students attend colleges with tuition and fees totaling $33,000 or higher per year."

Education is costly, in both time and money, but it's worth it in the long run. That doesn't mean students and their parents should go into extreme debt to finance a college degree. There are alternatives to the priciest schools--a good one is the community college, which is affordable and accessible. Public two-year schools in 2007-2008 cost $2,361, up 4.2 percent from last year, the College Board says.

The United States has about 1,200 community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. They offer a panoply of academic and job-training programs--some even offering bachelor's degrees--and appeal to a broad swath of the population.

According to a recent article in the Seattle Times:

"There's a bubble of traditional-age students who are coming in greater numbers," said Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Community Colleges. "Partly it's the cheaper cost, and partly it's that so many of them can't be accommodated at traditional universities." ...

Kent has noticed a second bubble of students at the other end of the spectrum — in the 50-plus age range. She said baby boomers are more likely than previous generations to seek job retraining or to study for enjoyment.

Our job market and economy have changed. The higher a worker's level of education, skills and training, the better he or she is likely to fare in the job market. To stay current with such shifts, members of the middle class must continually pursue education and training while they refine and improve their skills. The community college can help them do that, and together they can work to preserve the strength and vitality of America's middle class.

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