COMMENTARY: College students beware: the middle class is shrinking

Aaron Hughey

College students beware: The middle class is shrinking.

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of all Americans see income inequality as more of a concern than race relations or national security. It is quickly becoming the defining issue of the 21st Century.


The growing gap between the rich and poor obviously impacts all Americans — but it holds special significance for college students. They are the ones with the most to lose in a two-tiered society.

Throughout history, people were generally considered either rich or poor. The rich were typically land owners who maintained their status by simply procreating. The poor never questioned their plight or strove to rise above their circumstances.

This was simply the way the world was and — until the advent of the Industrial Revolution — everyone knew their place in the cultural hierarchy. In the United States, the middle class did not really exist until after World War II. Some seem nostalgic for that bygone era, but a dichotomous society is not in anyone’s best interest — including the rich.

There is more at stake here than most realize.

For most of my life, I have been assured that education is the only reliable route available to most Americans who want to enhance their quality of life. And until the last few decades, all the available evidence tended to support that notion. Degrees have historically helped ensure a higher standard of living for those who earned them.

But that may no longer be the case.

As inflation continues to push the cost of attending college beyond the reach of many Americans, the social contract that traditionally emphasized the importance of higher education is slowly disintegrating. Changing attitudes about the role of government, an aging population with exploding health care needs and shifting societal priorities are undermining the value of higher education in unprecedented and profoundly demoralizing ways.

The gap between rich and poor, with respect to college graduates, has grown more than 50 percent just since the 1990s. Similarly, the gap between standardized test scores for these two groups is 40 percent wider than it was in 1970.

Once upon a time, helping students obtain a college education was seen as an investment in our collective future — as beneficial to society as to the individual receiving the assistance. Unfortunately, as the cost of attending college continues to escalate exponentially, many of our legislators have apparently decided that the financial awards associated with being a college graduate mean that the individual should shoulder more of the expense associated with acquiring the credential.

The current generation of taxpayers needs to step up and provide the next generation with the same benefits and opportunities that were afforded them by the preceding generation.

Moreover, the call for college students to rise up in defense of a social contract with a proven track record has never been more acute or had greater significance than it does right now. No other investment has the potential to shape our destiny the way higher education does.

Total student loan debt recently passed the $1 trillion mark — more than credit card debt in the United States. This is a national disgrace — and a direct result of the shrinking middle class.

College students, beware.

-Aaron Hughey

Professor, Department of Counseling and Student Affairs