College Used to Be a Path to Success. Now It Divides Us.

Today’s educational system does more to stratify than to dissolve economic advantage.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - MAY 30: General atmosphere at 2013 Harvard University 362nd Commencement Exercises at Harvard University on May 30, 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
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Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
Dec. 10, 2013, 4:15 a.m.

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.

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