Rick Santorum is still weathering criticism for saying last weekend that President Obama is a “snob” for wanting more Americans to go to college. (Specifically, Santorum accused the president of wanting “everybody in America to go to college,” which is just a lie.) Ignore, for a moment, Santorum’s disturbing conflation of higher education with snobbery. Is this latent anti-college sentiment economically sound?
In a word, “no.” Some of the leading research on economics and education comes from Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. In a 2009 paper that sums up much of their work, the two scholars note that the wage gap between educated and less-educated workers has been widening since the 1980s, and they argue that one factor explains most of the divergence: “Rising differences between the wages of the highly educated and the less educated.” Starting in the 1970s, they write, educational attainment in the United States began to slow down, and inequality began to speed up. “The bottom line here,” they conclude, “is that labor-market-based efforts to reduce inequality depend on increasing the supply of educated workers.” That sounds like a goal worth pursuing, even if it upsets Rick Santorum.