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No, Education Isn't Enough to Get You Out of the Ghetto

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Want to know how to get rich? Wilbur Ross has the answer: Go to school.

"Education is the way that people get out of the ghetto and into, if not the One Percent, something close to it," said the billionaire investor in an interview earlier this year.

That's it. So simple.

So simple, in fact, that you have to wonder: Why doesn't everybody do it? Why don't we all study our way into the One Percent?

Actually, many have tried. Over 73 million adults have a college degree in this country, but less than 2 million of them are members of the One Percent. Most earn less than a fifth of what they'd need to qualify for the One Percent.

The same is true of postgraduate degrees. Approximately 38 million adults have a master's, professional, or doctoral degree, and over 37 million of them earn less than the One Percent. Most aren't even close. To be a member of the One Percent, you have to earn more than $393,000 a year. The average PhD grad earns less than $93,000.

And it's getting worse. New college graduates entering the workforce today are earning wages 5 percent lower, after adjusting for inflation, than their predecessors earned a decade earlier. Over half of them can't find full-time work, and half of the ones who do get a job aren't using their degrees. Even law school grads only have 50/50 odds of finding full-time legal jobs. As a result, college graduates are this nation's fastest-growing group of food stamp recipients.

That's a far cry from the lucrative lifestyle that Wilbur Ross promised them.

It's not hard to see why Ross would make this mistake. The average member of the One Percent is more educated than the average member of the 99 Percent. Ross looks around at his fellow One Percenters and sees their education and assumes that's how they got there. It's like the old joke about the guy who was born on third base and assumed he'd hit a triple.

Ross's own life is a classic example. His father was a graduate of Yale, one of the most elite universities in the world. He sent his son to the college preparatory Xavier High School in Manhattan, where the current annual tuition is $14,450. From there, Ross went to -- surprise, surprise -- Yale, where his faculty adviser got him his first summer job on Wall Street.

Contrast that story with the childhood that most Americans experience.

The divergence starts before they even set foot in a classroom. By the age of 3, low-income children hear 30 million fewer words than their wealthier peers. Kids whose parents can afford to send them to high-performing preschools are more likely to graduate from high school, half as likely to get arrested, and almost three times more likely to own a home in adulthood.

If they overcome those odds, lower-income children attend schools that have lower education ratings, and they spend less time in those schools because they have to work or take care of family members. They also miss more days because they're more likely to be sick.

It's a myth that lower-income parents spend less time exploring school options or engaging their kids in home-learning activities. Contrary to what Wilbur Ross may tell you, low-income parents are just as committed to their kids' education as their wealthier counterparts, according to studies of thousands of families across America. The problem is, they are less able to navigate the educational system because they are less informed. They also have less money to spend -- and the gap in money spent on "enrichment activities" has been growing for the past four decades.

These problems become painfully clear when it comes time to apply to college. Most high-achieving, low-income students don't even apply to elite universities like Yale because they don't know how. No one encourages them. No one shows them how to pay for it. They see high tuition costs -- and financial aid that has been going more and more to wealthy students in recent years -- and they opt for lower-rated schools instead. If you take a rich kid and a poor kid with equally high achievements and test scores in high school, the rich kid is twice as likely to attend an elite university, simply because he comes from a wealthier family.

And even if the average American child manages to overcome all of these obstacles, they still face daunting odds to reach the hallowed One Percent. According to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, "rich kids without a college degree are 2.5 times more likely to end up rich than poor kids who do graduate from college." It turns out that education isn't a silver bullet after all.

Wilbur Ross is right about one thing, though. "I think the right focus would be how do you help the lower classes elevate themselves," he said in the same interview. "And I think what's disappointing with all the rhetoric, they're not doing anything to fix the educational system."

It is possible to give all Americans the same opportunities that young Wilbur Ross enjoyed. We can pay for all children to attend preschool. We can create home visitation programs that read to kids at an early age and help parents create a healthy environment for them. We can raise the minimum wage and create more jobs for parents so their kids don't have to skip school to pay the bills. We can equalize funding for public schools between rich and poor school districts so all students have the same level of quality education. We can return to the days when Pell grants and other financial aid allowed kids to go to the college of their choice without onerous student loans. And once they're in the workforce, we can invest in the kind of research and development that puts those advanced degrees to use.

But every one of those solutions requires Wilbur Ross and his fellow One Percenters to share a little of their good fortune with the 99 Percent. The only question is, do they really want to be a part of the solution? Or is "education" their scapegoat for an unjust inequality of opportunity that they are content to enjoy as long as it benefits them?

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