Thursday, March 15, 2012

Education and the Reproduction of Privilege

Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
They will abide in prosperity,
and their children shall possess the land.
Psalm 25:8-10, 13
Rick Santorum made headlines by calling President Obama a “snob” for insisting that every American should go to college. What the President actually said was that every American should commit to a year of training beyond high school. He talked about four year colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeships. And as it turns out, the former Senator endorses that same goal.

Higher education is an important factor in economic success. And its importance is increasing. Thirty years ago, college graduates earned an average of 50% more money than those with only a high school diploma. Today that difference has increased to 80%.

Americans have believed in education as the great economic ladder by which even the poorest citizens could climb into the middle class. But recent data indicate that may no longer be true. Education, in fact, may solidify and increase class barriers.

In an essay in Monday’s New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall talks about college as an institution that reinforces class stratification. Citing a report by Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and co-author of a report on how college access increases inequality, Edsall observes that at the most competitive colleges almost three quarters of all students come from families in the top quartile of income and that only three percent come from the bottom quartile. As Carnevale puts it, “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.”

In the United States there are a little more than one thousand colleges classified as “competitive,” and almost exactly the same number of community colleges. But the student bodies of those two groups are from the opposite ends of the income scare. At the competitive colleges, nearly eighty percent come from families in the upper half of the income distribution. At the community colleges the same percentage comes from low-income families.

We like to think of the education system as a class-blind meritocracy. Standardized tests, like the SAT, don’t know and don’t care what a student’s family income is, or where her parents went to college. But in practice, SAT scores correlate closely to income. The higher the income, the higher the score. Those scoring at the upper end are on average, from wealthier families.

The problem is exacerbated by shrinking scholarships.

In the late 1960’s, when I was applying to college, my dad was the pastor of three small churches on Cape Cod. Our income was barely above the poverty line, but I received a full scholarship to Wesleyan University (tuition, room and board, and money for books). Need based scholarships at that level do not exist today. If I were applying to college today, I would get a “package” of grants and loans, with an anticipated college debt that would take decades to pay off.

This means that those rare students from the lower income levels who do have excellent grades and score well on standardized tests are far less likely than their more affluent classmates to enroll in college, and more likely to leave before graduation. Thirty years ago a Pell Grant (the federal scholarship program) covered 99 percent of the cost of community college, 77 percent of the cost at a public four year college, and 36 percent of the cost at a private four-year college. According to Education Week, today those percentages had dropped to 62, 36 and 15 percent. Grants are shrinking as costs are rising.

Since the founding of our nation, we have believed in the ideal of a “class-less” nation. We knew that there were gaps in income. But we believed in universal education as the best way to shrink those gaps and provide opportunity for every citizen. And the huge middle class gains after the Second World War, seemed to offer proof that the ideal could become reality. Today we face a series of economic factors which have made upward mobility much more difficult.

The system we have trusted to break through the barriers of class, now does just the opposite. As Anthony Carnevale stated, “The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege.” We need some serious reform if we are to reclaim our dream.

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