Perhaps the reason education attainment is falling behind in America is because those who would most benefit from a college degree don’t really believe it will help them.

A distressing new poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News finds that 47 percent of Americans don’t believe a college education is “worth it.”

The faith in learning as a path to prosperity gets lower as incomes drop. Among the poor and working class, the survey finds 60 percent feel college is not worth the cost or effort, while just 35 percent see the benefits of a degree.

The middle class values college by a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent, while perceptions of upper income earners are the exact opposite of the poor at 60 percent to 35 percent.

It might be that the cost of college, which has soared over the past two decades, has made the return on investment harder to see. Or the poor preparation that so many disadvantaged students receive from their high schools may make college seem unattainable, and thus worthless in their minds.

But no matter what the reason, the perception is flat wrong.

A college degree, or the equivalent in skills training, is the fastest route out of poverty, and maybe the only legal one.

Earnings for millennials aged 25 to 32 in 2014 were $17,500 higher for those with college degrees versus those with just a high school diploma —more than twice as much in today’s dollars than in 1965. That likely reflects the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs that once employed many blue collar middle income workers.

The reality for lower income teens weighing college or a skilled trade versus trying to get by just on what they learned in high school is that if they make the latter choice, they likely will stay poor the rest of their lives.

That message apparently isn’t getting through. So we need to shout it louder.

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