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Rich vs. Poor: The Growing 'Class' Gap in Higher Education

06/08/2015 08:30 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

Two thoughtful yet troubling articles, published within a week of each other, startled higher education leaders last week. In the great debate about which factors best explain the growing achievement gaps between rich and poor students, these studies reached important conclusions about the "drivers" contributing to the widening disparities.

Isabel Sawhill, writing for the series Social Mobility Memos, published by the Brookings Institution, found that "the rungs are only widening in terms of income inequality. There are growing class-related gaps in family structure, parenting styles, school test scores, college attendance and graduation, and neighborhood conditions." Drawing from a series of scissor charts in Robert Putnam's book, Our Kids, Ms. Sawhill concluded, "whatever the gaps in an earlier generation between kids from more or less advantaged families, they are much wider now."

Sawmill's solution is to invest in evidence-based programs, creating a continuum from before birth through college graduation. These include effective home visiting programs, high quality pre-k, and comprehensive school reforms in elementary and high school. She argues that her experience working with the Social Genome Model "suggests that if these programs were taken to scale, one might get a substantial boost to social mobility."

Writing in The New York Times, Susan Dynarski concludes that the graduation gap is even wider than the enrollment gap. She based her findings on a study that tracked a cohort of 15,000 high school sophomores begun in 2002 by the National Center for Education Statistics. This study divided the students into four quartiles based on parents' education, income and occupation. These sophomores were optimistic overall, with more than 70 percent of them planning on earning a bachelor's degree.

Further, 87 percent in the top quartile expected to get a bachelor's degree, with 24 percent planning to also earn an advanced degree. In the bottom quartile, 58 percent of the students expected to get at least a bachelor's degree and 12 percent planned to go on to graduate school.

The study looked at what happened to these 15,000 sophomores in 2015. Ms. Dynarski reports that "among participants from the most disadvantaged families, just 14 percent had earned a bachelor's degree." Put another way, "one out of four of the disadvantaged students who had hoped to get a bachelor's had done so." Among students from the most advantaged families, however, "60 percent earned a bachelor's, about two-thirds of those who planned to."

The study then tracked sophomores through a battery of math and reading tests to determine whether the most disadvantaged students were simply overconfident with their dreams "outstripping their academic skills." The finding is telling: "educational achievement does not explain the gap in bachelor's degree attainment."

Put in other terms: "Class trumps ability when it comes to college graduation."

Both reports raise the question of whether education from "cradle to career" is in a crisis from which it can recover. Can American educational policy adjust in time to maintain its primacy and uniqueness historically as the world's educator, if the product exported does not meet the needs of the markets that it proposes to serve?

The implications for the future of American higher education at home are clear:

  • The outcomes for the American educational system -- whether basic or higher education -- will improve with better research looking at the underlying causes in the gap between aspiration and outcome.

  • There must a commitment -- a national passion for education -- that enhances the role that education plays as a safety value to bridge the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students by emphasizing that education remains the greatest driver to social mobility in American society.
  • Education must be seen as a seamless pathway and not compartmentalized by "basic" and "higher" education strategies that exist in isolation to one another.
  • Higher education recruitment, enrollment, persistence, graduation and placement strategies must come to terms quickly with a new normal, embracing demographic shifts and adapting to meet them; and
  • This adaptation must also support new pedagogies and utilize new technologies to provide affordable education that reflects education's role in creating social mobility.
  • As developing nations industrialize and the United States moves toward an increasingly global economy, education must be the glue that holds American society together as the transition occurs to a post-industrial future.

    Education plays a vital role in a democracy because it is perceived as a "great equalizer," supporting social mobility and creating productive, adaptable citizens. But, education fails if its role shifts to reinforce an inequitable status quo that will ultimately destabilize American society. If the steam builds without using education to release it, the brittleness of education policy will undermine the promise of America upon which so many have historically built their future.

    We need to understand what's going on better. There's a lot at stake here.