The Unprepared American

The ticket to compete in a global economy, a college degree, is increasingly hard to get

WITHIN the next few weeks, a large number of America's 18-year-olds will learn whether they were admitted to the college of their choice. Many will also learn that they cannot afford to go. Never have the stakes been higher. The wage gap is growing between people with college degrees and those without. In 1980, the typical college grad was earning about 80 percent more than the non-grad; today, it's almost 160 percent more. The reason for the divergence is that modern economies are placing greater and greater value on conceptual skills - on the ability to identify and solve new problems - and placing less and less value on routine work of a sort that can be performed more cheaply elsewhere around the globe.

Other nations, notably the former West Germany, have devoted substantial resources to vocational and technical education, which, when combined with apprenticeships offered by major industries, prepare a large proportion of their young for well-paying jobs. In America, we rely almost exclusively on college as the means of preparing for good jobs.

But even as the importance of college education increases, American families are finding it harder to foot the bill. Tuition at public and private colleges rose during the 1980s by an average of 26 percent, adjusted for inflation. During the same interval, a majority of American families watched their incomes decline.

HOW can a deserving student from a relatively poor family make up the difference? Don't look to Uncle Sam. During the 1980s, guaranteed student loans declined 13 percent, and direct grants were slashed. The Bush administration proposes merely to shift the little federal help that remains to the very lowest-income families, and cut off all aid for students whose grades place them in the bottom tenth of their class.

Don't expect private colleges to offer much financial aid. Squeezed by rapidly escalating costs of medical insurance and energy, and a dwindling pot of federal money, many private colleges are abandoning ``need blind'' admission policies, which had once guaranteed aid to anyone qualified to attend.

What about state colleges and universities, whose low tuitions have long promoted upward mobility? Don't count on them, either. Under the strain of mounting budget deficits, the states are now spending, on average, no more than 8 percent of their tax revenues on public higher education, down from 9.2 percent in 1980. And many of the largest state university systems are planning huge tuition hikes. Gov. Mario Cuomo is seeking a $500 million tuition increase in the New York system which, when coupled with midyear increases already approved, would raise tuitions 56 percent. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld wants to hike state college tuitions 33 percent. Even California, famed for its low in-state tuitions, is proposing a 40 percent increase.

We are facing a historic turnabout. Until now, each generation of Americans has had a better education than the generation preceding it. In 1980, 24 percent of men between the ages of 34 and 45 had completed four years of college. Today, 31 percent of them have completed college. But younger men, aged 25 to 34, are beginning to fall behind - only 25 percent of them have completed college. The recent increase in female college graduates (24 percent of younger women) has not been enough to off set the decline among younger men. And much of this overall downward trend can be attributed to the increasing difficulty of affording a college education.

THE growing inaccessibility of college to the children of America's less affluent families is cause for concern, and not only because of the disappointment felt by many 18-year-olds during the next few weeks when they learn that they can't afford a college education. There is also the loss of their future productivity, and the squandering of their future contributions to our society. Absent any other means of preparing for the jobs of the future, these young people are virtually consigned to a second-cl ass economic citizenship.

We must worry, finally, about the cohesion of our society. There is mounting evidence that America is already splitting. The most fortunate fifth of our families are seceding into enclaves of safe parks, well-tended roads, pleasant working environments, tasteful shopping plazas, and good grammar and secondary schools that prepare their children for advanced education.

With a college degree becoming the prerequisite to a good job in the new global economy, its growing inaccessibility to many young Americans suggests that the haves may come to inhabit a permanently separate society.

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