The Decline of the American Dream: Higher Education and Social Mobility

Higher education is the path for economic and social mobility. This has been the mantra used to call for additional public support to arguments regarding the centrality of higher education to American society. While we all know that higher education often falls short of these goals, higher education is consistently held up as the best path for mobility in this country. However, new data published by the New York Times holds up a mirror on higher education and it isn’t pretty. In today’s post, I will share my reaction to this new data and suggest it is time to acknowledge the inherent privilege built into higher education.

Photo credit: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho

Much as been made of the similarities between the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They each used different rhetoric and proposed different policies, but at the heart of both of their messages were concerns regarding the American Dream.

The simple beauty of the American Dream is that children will achieve greater social and economic mobility of their parents. Yet, we know that the American Dream is fading. Children today are only about 50% as likely to have more success than there parents (down from a high of 90% in previous generations).

Essentially, it is a flip of the coin if you will be better off than your parents.

This is bad on many levels. However, what is worse is that upper income children are able to use a two headed coin. They win no matter what.

At the end of the day that’s what this mountain of data is telling us (and the data is fabulous, I highly recommend exploring it in detail).

The path to the American Dream is narrower today for low income students. It isn’t closed, but it is dramatically lower than any time in recent memory.

I still believe higher education has the potential to serve as the best path for social and economic success, but we have to acknowledge how this is breaking down.

Anyone who is even a casual observer knows the problems. Declining state support, escalating tuition, and underprepared students are just a few of the many problems facing higher education today.

One of the serious problems facing higher education is that the disparity evident in individual incomes also exists among colleges and universities.

Large federal grants and huge endowments are vested in a few incredibly wealthy institutions.

The problem is that while society invests a great deal in these institutions, they don’t drive mobility.

Less prestigious private institutions and nearly all public institutions are much better at improving student mobility.

With the vast amount of data available in this report, there are a number of conclusions to be drawn and explored. However, two big ones stood out to me.

First, we need to embrace the institutional diversity in American higher education. Everyone focuses on elite institutions: researchers, media, and the public. We have to stop this obsession because these institutions while significant are not in the mainstream and do not do the yeoman’s work of fostering the American Dream. As a society, we need to think about how to better share higher education resources with institutions that take on the bulk of our students and dramatically improve their social and economic fortunes.

I would include government appropriations, financial aid, and philanthropy as areas where we need to better share resources. In no way am I suggesting that elite institutions do not deserve support, but rather we need to curtail the outsized support they currently receive.

Second, I worry that the various free college programs that have become popular of late would do more to escalate the problems evident in this data rather than alleviate them. I appreciate that Sanders as well as a few governors want to improve access to higher education. I wholeheartedly agree with their aims. However, when we know that certain institutions are bastions of privilege and high income, does it make sense to make those institutions free? It may. I would not pretend to have all of the answers on this point and I don’t know that anyone really knows what would happen. However, we do know that financial aid programs such as tax credits open to anyone do tend to pay students that don’t need to money. There are other potential advantages of free college programs just like with promise programs that are popular after success in Tennessee and other states.

Ultimately, I worry free college will exacerbate the rich getting richer by providing an infusion of cash into the system without any provisions for supporting those institutions that do the heavy lifting on issues on mobility.

Finally, I worry about how we in higher education react to news such as this data. Keuka College immediately put out a press release touting that the New York Times ranked the institution in the Top 10% for economic mobility.

Are you kidding me? We get news about the decline of the American Dream and economic mobility and the reaction is to brag about rankings. I applaud Keuka for success in improving students, but to turn this into a rankings game only shows the fundamental problems in higher education right now.

Instead of sharing ideas on how everyone can do a better job serving these students, we jump to sending out press releases about how we’re in the Top 10% on something.

What’s more sad? I completely understand why they did it and probably would do the same thing in their shoes.

Higher education may be more broken than just on the issue of social mobility.

We must do better.

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