Opinion: College and the End of Upward Mobility

"America sees itself as a meritocracy. No other nation has turned upward mobility into a civic religion. And education has been central to that ethos, allowing us to reconcile our individualism with our egalitarian commitments. Rather than an elite drawn from a hereditary caste, social mobility ensures a 'natural aristocracy' based on talent. Horace Mann has a famous line about education as 'the great equalizer ... the balance-wheel of the social machinery.' Educational institutions, especially colleges, act as the upward escalators," Richard Reeves, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Or at least that’s the idea. In practice, American higher education has become a powerful means for perpetuating class divisions across generations. Despite decades of reform, billions of dollars spent on Pell Grants, and genuine efforts by many colleges to widen their doors, the proportion of students from poor backgrounds at four-year and selective institutions has not risen since the early 2000s. The relationship between family income and college attendance by the age of 22 is very strong, as recent research from Raj Chetty and his colleagues at the Equality of Opportunity Project shows. Six out of 10 25-year-olds raised in families in the top fifth of the income distribution (incomes of more than $120,000 a year in today’s money) have a bachelor’s degree, compared with a third of those in the middle 40 percent, and just one in 10 from the bottom 40 percent.

This class gap in college attendance and degree completion widens when it comes to selective institutions, and further still for the most elite institutions."

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Publication Date: 12/6/2017

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