Rare is the international comparison in which the United States trails not only the big industrialized nations—Great Britain, say—and the perennial Nordic list-toppers such as Finland but also lags such middling economies as Italy, Turkey, and Mexico.
But here's one: The likelihood that children will acquire more education than their parents is now lower in the United States than in all of those countries. In fact, the odds of children exceeding their parents' educational level is "lower in the United States than in any other advanced nation," Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce concluded in "Separate and Unequal," their recent landmark report on American higher education.
In the U.S. today, they found, three-fourths of children whose parents obtained a Ph.D. or professional degree earn at least a four-year college diploma. So do nearly two-thirds of young people whose parents earned a master's degree and half of those whose parents obtained a bachelor's degree. By comparison, only about a fourth of children whose parents attended but didn't finish college earned a bachelor's degree themselves. The numbers fall to about one in eight for kids whose parents advanced no further than a high school diploma.
Drill to bedrock in our collective convictions and you will find the belief that America is a land of opportunity, in which everyone can rise as far as their talents will take them. In the latest College Board/National Journal Next America Poll, conducted in October, two-thirds of adults said children of all backgrounds have an adequate chance to succeed in the United States. Majorities not only of whites but also of Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and African-Americans agreed. Their faith is a source of the energy and tenacity that routinely drives Americans to climb far beyond their modest beginnings.
And yet overall, the cross-generational trends in educational achievement mock our collective self-image. In the American imagination, education operates as our great social escalator, lifting anyone with enough determination to within reach of the American Dream. But the trends Carnevale and Strohl describe show that today's educational system does more to stratify than to dissolve economic advantage.
Educational institutions may not be motivated by racial prejudice or "class bias," Carnevale noted at a recent forum sponsored by National Journal. But functionally, he said, the U.S. has developed a "dual system," particularly in higher education, "where even these color-blind, class-blind institutions are very reliably [generating] intergenerational reproduction of race and class privilege."
This dual system starts young. Six decades after the Supreme Court banned school segregation, separation by class and race remains endemic in America's elementary and secondary schools. The Southern Education Foundation recently found, in another compelling study, that 48 percent of all public-school students in kindergarten through high school now qualify for reduced or free school lunches, which are provided to families earning 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level. Those families are heavily concentrated. Almost three-fourths of young African-Americans and more than two-thirds of young Hispanics attend schools in which a majority of students qualify as low-income. That's true for only about a third of Asian-Americans and just three in 10 white students.
The same tracking continues onto the college quad. One of the bright spots for American education is that more African-American and Hispanic youths are completing high school and starting college; as Carnevale and Strohl note, minorities' representation among first-year college students jumped from 27 percent in 1995 to 37 percent in 2009. But over that period, they found, about two-thirds of the new African-American students and almost three-fourths of Hispanics were channeled into community colleges and the least-selective four-year institutions. Meanwhile, more than four-fifths of new white students flowed into the nation's 468 most-selective schools, where three-fourths of the students were white—virtually unchanged from two decades ago.
This is crucial. Those elite schools spend at least twice as much per student as the less-selective institutions and produce far better outcomes in graduation rates, postgraduate degrees, and lifetime earnings. They mint the adults most likely to raise children who will someday attend these schools themselves.
As Carnevale notes, the divergent outcomes for children from comfortable and poor families are rooted in a "very complex set of mutually reinforcing factors" that start with their parents' education and income levels. Reversing those powerful dynamics isn't easy—especially when public budgets are tight. But the Next America will be a tense and turbulent place if it accepts a collapsing ladder of mobility that apportions opportunity mainly to young people with the great foresight to be born into it.
This article appears in the December 7, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Stuck in Place.