May 24, 2005

'A kind of inherited meritocracy.'

The latest article in the NY Times' series on class in the US deals with one of the effects of class on higher education. Specifically, it talks about one of the fastest-growing groups of young adults in the country: college dropouts. According to the Bureau of the Census, one in three people in their mid-20s have dropped out of college; this compares to a one in five figure during the late 1960s when these figures began being kept. Most of the dropouts come from poor and working class families.

Many people like him plan to return to get their degrees, even if few actually do. Almost one in three Americans in their mid-20's now fall into this group, up from one in five in the late 1960's, when the Census Bureau began keeping such data. Most come from poor and working-class families.

Going to college has become the norm throughout most of the United States, even in many places where college was once considered an exotic destination... At elite universities, classrooms are filled with women, blacks, Jews and Latinos, groups largely excluded two generations ago. The American system of higher learning seems to have become a great equalizer.

In fact, though, colleges have come to reinforce many of the advantages of birth. On campuses that enroll poorer students, graduation rates are often low. And at institutions where nearly everyone graduates - small colleges like Colgate, major state institutions like the University of Colorado and elite private universities like Stanford - more students today come from the top of the nation's income ladder than they did two decades ago.

Only 41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college managed to graduate within five years, the Department of Education found in a study last year, but 66 percent of high-income students did. That gap had grown over recent years....

There is certainly much to celebrate about higher education today. Many more students from all classes are getting four-year degrees and reaping their benefits. But those broad gains mask the fact that poor and working-class students have nevertheless been falling behind; for them, not having a degree remains the norm.

That loss of ground is all the more significant because a college education matters much more now than it once did. A bachelor's degree, not a year or two of courses, tends to determine a person's place in today's globalized, computerized economy. College graduates have received steady pay increases over the past two decades, while the pay of everyone else has risen little more than the rate of inflation.

As a result, despite one of the great education explosions in modern history, economic mobility - moving from one income group to another over the course of a lifetime - has stopped rising, researchers say. Some recent studies suggest that it has declined over the last generation.

The main thing that we noticed about this article is that, while it did mention the financial difficulties that low-income students face when attending colleges and universities, it didn't mention two of the most important reasons why those difficulties exist:

  1. The continuing cuts in federal financial aid programs for students, largely as a result of decisions made during Republican administrations.
  2. Cuts in state-funded financial aid programs as a result of Republican-backed tax cuts and tax-rollback initiatives — cuts which mainly benefited corporations and those with high incomes.

Rather than being a problem of colleges not doing enough to help poor and working class students stay in school, the problem of the increasing dropout rate among these students is more accurately attributed to deliberate political decisions made at the federal and state levels. And while one can argue over whether those decisions were intended to make higher education increasingly available only to the well-off, there's little question that this is what those decisions did.

Funny how an article about class could be so class-biased as to miss that angle, isn't it?

Via NY Times.

Posted by Magpie at May 24, 2005 01:08 AM | Education | Technorati links |