Education and the Reproduction of Privilege

As a university professor, I obviously believe in the value of higher education. However, I also remind my students that education alone is only part of the equation when you seek entry into the elite circles of our nation or any culture.

In any system, the elites end up together. The problem for the United States is that we aren't supposed to be governed exclusively by Harvard or Yale graduates. We are supposed to reject the Cambridge and Oxford model of British leadership and definitely be "better" than the supposedly merit-based system of the French.

The French system openly resists the "lower classes" by refusing to consider personal backgrounds in admissions. While I don't embrace affirmative action quotas, trying to block qualified candidates from the middle and lower classes is absurd. The Conference of Grandes Ecoles, leaders of the 23 leading French universities, continues to resist orders from Pres. Sarkozy to admit at least 30 percent of students from "humble" backgrounds — which includes having parents without college degrees.

Yet, the United States is heading in the direction of France.

The New York Times political blogs included this story in March:

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."

Three-quarters of the students at the best research and most elite colleges and universities are from the upper-class, defined as the top 25% of household incomes in this research. (The IRS and Census define the upper-income range as the top quintile, not the top quartile.)

The result of this trend is that the children of the rich are segregated into the elite universities. They meet each other, network, and go on to hire each other. We tend to socialize and work with people like ourselves, and people definitely form social bonds based on their university loyalties. Alumni of Harvard and Yale hire other alumni from Harvard and Yale.

There are some test score differences between classes, and those are increasing.

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.

Is this all about test scores, though? Not exclusively. While the rich can and do seek test preparation and have other benefits when taking standardized tests, we can ask what about the middle-income and low-income students with great test scores and high grade point averages. Do grades and test scores get you through the locked gates of the elite universities?

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.

It isn't enough to be a great student with high test scores. You apparently have to be part of the "club" to pass through the gates to our elite universities. That's not a good trend, especially if you do believe in meritocracy and the promise of class mobility.

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.

I was from a "humble" background and was able to attend two major universities, one private and one public. These institutions rely on endowments to attract and retain students from varied backgrounds. At the public research university, I obtained what was called a "Diversity of Views and Experiences" fellowship, funded by several outside foundations. The DOVE Fellowship program was essential to my attending a university and earning my doctorate.

Other students from backgrounds like mine must contemplate staggering debt. This debt is acceptable if you are in a good field, such as engineering. I would never encourage a student like me to pursue an English degree at an expensive, elite university without a full-tuition scholarship.

Fear of debt and financial responsibility to families might explain the following situation:

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.

We tell our students that a college degree, any college degree, is somehow a promise of future earnings and class mobility. That's simply not borne out by the research. I read an article recently that compared graduate with the "same degrees" but from different types of institutions. A social work degree from a state university might enable you to land a job as a social worker for $40,000 or less in most states. The same degree from an elite school was several times more likely to result in hiring as a supervisor or director in a social services department, at twice the pay. That difference in starting salary expands throughout your career.

When raises are based on percentages, such as a 2.1 percent annual cost of living allowance (COLA), the person starting at twice the pay rapidly moves further away from his or her colleagues. The elite university degree sets you on a path apart from others, and not merely in terms of income.

If you do not attend a good university (and graduate) you are not going to rise as quickly in the evolving technology-based economy. Attending a second-tier (or lower) university? You are extremely unlikely to gain any significant social mobility. A college degree from For-Profit U or from We Accept U is not comparable to a degree from the top universities. It isn't even close.

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."

It doesn't surprise me that some students from humble backgrounds are giving up, unwilling to challenge the system. I would never allow the system to defeat me, emotionally, but I do understand that is precisely what is happening. When you see few students like yourself entering the elite universities and gaining access to the elite leadership class of this nation, it is reasonable to wonder if you can beat the odds with effort alone.

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.

I don't have any answers. More financial aid isn't going to change the class differences that pose larger obstacles than we care to admit. I am unlike the people I meet from the "elite" class. I don't share their interests or their passions, and that is a barrier for a student from humble roots.

As a professor, I know the best I can do is promise my students a little bit more mobility. Ideally, their children will in turn have a little bit more, too. It is a multigenerational process, unfortunately, because culture plays such an important role in the divisions I observe.

I recall some colleagues I met at a great university. They were busy talking about places they have been, the foods they enjoy, their hobbies, and so on. One professor complained about making only one trip abroad for the year. A graduate student discussed flying to New York to shop at her favorite clothing stores. Those are only two examples of their view of what constitutes "normal." It was then that I realized I wouldn't "fit in" on some campuses, good test scores or not. Maybe that is one explanation of the self-segregation effect. It was like being an anthropologist on a strange planet. With nothing to bond us together, of course those elites wouldn't seek to admit me into their club.

Our elite universities risk becoming homogenous. That's not good for our economy, our politics, or the general future of this nation.


  1. I agree that education gives a certain position in life but that's part of the reason why we study. Now how you manage it depends on each person.


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