Top economists argue for income-based affirmative action at colleges

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Expert economists are arguing that graduating from college offers value to low-income students, but “other polices” are needed to address income inequality.

In an opinion editorial for the New York Times, economists Tim Bartik and Brad Hershbein of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that low-income college graduates earned 71 percent more during the course of their careers than those who only completed high school. It is estimated that the average college graduate from a low-income background will earn approximately $810,000 during their career, while one with only a high school diploma will likely make $475,000.

Bartik and Hershbein discovered that college appeared to provide an even greater value to graduates from higher-income backgrounds, and concluded that simply increasing college attendance will not resolve the issue of economic inequality, although that is part of the solution.

“We should also help lower-income Americans better access the highest-paying jobs, for example, through helping them attend more selective colleges,” said Bartik and Hershbein. “To reduce inequality, we should consider policies to help redistribute the extraordinary fortunes gained by those at the very top of the American income distribution.”

Brendan Pringle, columnist at the Washington Examiner, summed up Bartick and Hershbein’s argument by saying, “In other words, we should expand income-based affirmative action at prestigious colleges, taking opportunity from the rich in the name of social justice. This argument is completely flawed.”

Pringle supported his premise by noting that “Countless studies have shown that affirmative action does not work, and wealth redistribution policies will reduce the number of jobs available by stripping the incentive for employers to create more high-paying jobs.”

According to Pringle, those who actually graduate from college benefit from the education, but approximately 40 percent of those who attend college drop out. On average, the college drop-outs show only a marginal economic advantage over those with a high school education — about $3,120 more a year. “That doesn’t account for the student debt and the loss of income incurred by not immediately entering the workforce.” Pringle wrote.

Amid an exorbitant rise in the cost of college, Pringle argues that apprenticeship programs are a better solution to the wage gap issue than “pushing high school students on the college track or playing Robin Hood with prospective job creators.”

The Brookings Institution, a progressive think tank, agrees with Pringle’s contention, asserting that “apprenticeships could and should be an alternative for the many young people who want a qualification but not a traditional academic degree.” The Brookings Institution has even praised President Donald Trump’s expansion of industry-recognized apprenticeships, and noted that disadvantaged college students thrive in apprenticeships because they provide a connection between classwork and the labor market.

Pringle concluded, “Demand for skilled workers remains incredibly high. In the manufacturing industry alone, 600,000 jobs remain unfilled and employees can quickly earn up to six-figure salaries. Moreover, the Department of Labor estimates that apprentices earn an average starting wage of $60,000 per year.”

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