The Reproduction of Privilege
Instead of serving as a springboard to social mobility as it did for the first decades after World War II, college education today is reinforcing class stratification, with a huge majority of the 24 percent of Americans aged 25 to 29 currently holding a bachelor's degree coming from families with earnings above the median income.
Seventy-four percent of those now attending colleges that are classified as "most competitive," a group that includes schools like Harvard, Emory, Stanford and Notre Dame, come from families with earnings in the top income quartile, while only three percent come from families in the bottom quartile.
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and co-author of "How Increasing College Access Is Increasing Inequality, and What to Do about It," puts it succinctly: "The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege."
The "income achievement gap" – differences in standard test scores and grade point averages – between children from families in the top 10 percent of the income distribution and those from families in the bottom ten percent has been growing. Reardon has found that the income achievement gap between children from the highest and lowest income deciles is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born in 1976.
Contrary to those who say that this is the meritocracy at work, differences in scores on standardized tests do not fully explain class disparity in educational outcomes. When high-scoring students from low-income families are compared to similarly high-scoring students from upper-income families, 80 percent of the those in the top quarter of the income distribution go on to get college degrees, compared to just 44 percent of those in the bottom quarter.
Student bodies in competitive colleges and in community colleges reflect two very different economic worlds. At the 1,044 competitive colleges, 76 percent of the freshman came from families in the upper half of the income distribution. In the nation's 1,000-plus community colleges, almost 80 percent of the students came from low-income families.
Source: College Board, cited in the New York Times
There is a substantial body of evidence that the system is failing to reward students with high test scores who come from low-income families. In a 2005 report, the College Board found that among those scoring highest in math tests in 1992, just under three-quarters of students from families in the highest quartile went on to get bachelor's degrees by the year 2000. Among those from families in the bottom quartile, less than half that number, 29 percent, went on to get degrees.
As the value of a college degree has nearly doubled, in terms of future earnings, the percentage of low income college students actually graduating by age 24 has grown by only 2.1 points, from 6.2 percent in 1970 to 8.3 percent in 2009. Among students from families in the highest income quartile, the graduation rate by age 24 has surged by 42.2 percentage points, doubling from 40.2 percent to 82.4 percent over the last four decades.
The class-reinforcing trends of higher education pose an acute dilemma for the American political system. "The built-in tension between postsecondary selectivity and upward mobility is particularly acute in the United States. Americans rely on education as an economic arbiter more than do other modern nations," Carnevale wrote in "How Increasing College Access Is Increasing Inequality, and What to Do About It."
"Americans always have preferred education over the welfare state as a means for balancing the equality implicit in citizenship and the inequality implicit in markets."
The data show that a disproportionately large percentage of young adults from working-class families who, according to their test scores and grade point averages, are equipped to earn a B.A., are either not going to college, or failing to finish — relegating them to a life of stagnant or declining wages. There is a reservoir of resentment over this fate waiting to be tapped by either party.