Higher Education defenders like to make the claim that higher education is a great leveler in our society. One does not have to be born into wealth and privilege, the argument goes, to earn a college degree that leads to a lifetime of earnings and respect.
My own story reflects the power of higher education to transform lives. My mother, the eldest daughter of a widow, went to work in a handbag factory immediately after graduating high school. My father’s whose education stopped after the eighth grade worked on a family farm. However, their children all went to college as did my most of my cousins. As a result my siblings and cousins became teachers, psychologists, lawyers, city planners, scientists, and engineers.
Unfortunately, upward mobility in the US via higher education is becoming more and more rare as selective colleges preferentially admit students from higher income brackets and students from poor and working class backgrounds are sent to community colleges and other open admission institutions.
The goal of a bachelor’s degree for those in lower social economic brackets and especially Hispanic and African Americans has taken a huge step backwards during the Great Recession. In fact, one can argue, that higher education has now become a mechanism for re-enforcing class and racial divisions rather than providing opportunity for upward mobility.
What is the evidence? Most compelling is a new report Separate and Unequal by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The subtitle of the report, How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege, captures the findings. The chart below gives a visual summary of their data based on examining the post-secondary enrollment of all US students in the decade 1995 to 2005.
While these developments mirror the increasing racial and financial divide in our country, higher education may be more amenable to change and influence than other drivers of US inequality. For those of us working in higher education, our challenge is to reform our institutions to make them drivers of equality and upward mobility rather than re-enforces of the status quo. Because of the increasing importance of post-secondary education for an individual’s future earnings and economic viability, our success in this endeavor will have profound effects for the future of US society.