The Cost of Higher Education Will Be a Hot Issue in 2013

Expect the friction between educational attainment, debt, and social mobility to take center stage in the policy conversation this coming year.

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We're now into the final week of 2012, a timely period of reflection on the year. Pew Research Center is out with a compilation of their biggest findings about how America has changed in the last year, ranging from social trends to political ones. Of note is how certain trends that one might assume are contradictory seem to run parallel.

On the one hand, since 2000, the number of Americans considering themselves middle class has declined, with even more Americans identifying as lower- or lower-middle class than in 2008. Yet at the same time, a third of young adults are graduating from college and "record shares of young adults are completing high school."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Education is the path to earning a better living for many, and one would assume greater educational attainment would be a boost to America's economy and would support a growing middle class. The "Great Recession" has raised questions about that assumption. Contributing to this no doubt is the Pew finding that 19 percent of American households are in debt from financing their education, an increase since the onset of the downturn. Pew also finds that increasing numbers of young Americans have moved back in with mom and dad because of the recession.

As 2013 approaches and we look to the coming year, expect this friction between educational attainment, debt, and social mobility to take center stage in the policy conversation. With young voters having played such a key role in the 2012 election, the tension they face between the upsides and downsides of pursuing costly higher education will no doubt be a topic of debate.

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