American culture teaches us that postsecondary education is a primary path to getting ahead. In a poll released earlier this month, for instance, Gallup and the Lumina Foundation found that large majorities of Americans agree that a college education leads to a better quality of life. And they’re right: For the minority of Americans who complete a college degree, they earn more; they also vote more, are healthier, are more likely to marry, and have higher levels of social trust.
That’s great. The truth is, however, our postsecondary system doesn’t even touch large swaths of Americans, especially those who grew up in lower-income families. Most Americans don’t have a college degree. The latest data show that just 40 percent of Americans have finished an associate’s degree or above, while an additional 22 percent attended some college but failed to graduate. Among children born into low-income families in the early 1980s,under 10 percent had earned a four-year degree by age 25.
Those seeking to raise educational attainment rates have focused most of their effort on students who are still in the education pipeline. They’ve made progress, too, identifying the roadblocks that often stand in the way, with college costs, poor high school preparation, and misperceptions about costs and quality as the key culprits.
But what about the mass of Americans who are no longer connected to the education system at all: those who entered the labor market after high school or enrolled in some college but failed to finish? These workers have seen their labor market prospects dim considerably over the past 15 years, and some of them would presumably benefit from further education and training. Do they think so? And do they want more education?