Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality?

One of the most common solutions offered to reverse America’ growing economic inequality is increased access to education.  President Obama may have started the trend with his call for universal, high-quality preschool, but others have joined the fray.  In March, Ronald Brownstein argued in National Journal that “Education remains critical to reversing the erosion in upward mobility that has made it harder for kids born near the bottom to reach the top in the United States than in many European nations.” On The Century Foundation’s website just last week, Benjamin Landy posted a blog entitled “To Battle Income Inequality, Focus on Educational Mobility.”   

According to Brownstein, colleges and  universities are failing to make those opportunities available, because higher education has become too expensive and doesn’t do enough to help lower-income students succeed. In their 2009 study of college completion rates, William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, showed that lower-income students were less likely to graduate than their wealthier counterparts regardless of where they went to school.

Their study also showed, however, that working-class students did better when they enrolled in more selective colleges, rather than choosing a more accessible public institution, but many working-class students choose less-selective schools.  Many don’t even apply to more elite colleges, for any number of reasons.  In a recent study, Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner suggest that working-class students believe, mistakenly, that it will cost less.  In fact, financial aid programs aimed at increasing economic diversity at elite schools often make such schools more affordable than public schools.  That may be increasingly true as state legislatures dramatically cut support for public higher education, making them even more expensive.

How worried should we be about that?  On the basis of justice, we should be outraged.  We should, as Hoxby and Turner suggest, push elite schools to work harder to recruit working-class students.  We should join the thousands of college students who have organized protests against cuts to public education.  And those of us who are educators should heed Mike Rose’s prescription for addressing the needs of working-class students: “If we want more students to succeed in college, then colleges have to turn full attention to teaching.”

Still, the idea that more or better college education will “solve” the problem of economic inequality is just silly.  While a college education still provides economic advantages, increasing lifetime income, achieving that benefit is harder than it used to be.  These days, getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee better middle-class job prospects, but it does often bring a lifetime of debt.  Unemployment rates for recent graduates remain high – 53% according to The Atlantic a year ago, and many have taken low-wage, hourly jobs that don’t require a college degree.  Meanwhile, student loan debt has increased to an average of $26,600.  For too many, higher education has become a trap door rather than an elevator.

I’m not suggesting that education isn’t worthwhile.  Far from it.  A good education brings many advantages, only some of which have to do with employment or income. Martha Nussbaum is just one of many scholars arguing that education has value for society. But education simply won’t address the root causes of today’s economic inequality.

First, while state legislatures and business organizations pressure public universities to focus on preparing students for jobs in specific fields, like health care or fracking, the widely-touted “skills gap” turns out to be a myth.  The American economy is not being stymied by a lack of appropriately trained workers.  Wharton School management professor Peter Cappelli suggests that we should “Blame It on the Employer.”  He suggests that employers ask themselves a few key questions starting with this zinger: “Have you tried raising wages? If you could get what you want by paying more, the problem is just that you are cheap.”

Second, even when we talk about increasing access or establishing “universal” programs, education addresses the individual, not the system.  Even at its best, education helps some working-class young people prepare to move into the middle class, an outcome that might improve the economic opportunities of those individuals but doesn’t address the broader economic structure.  A thousand well-trained nurses might earn a decent living, but they will work alongside aides, janitors, and clerical workers who don’t. Simply put, moving some people into better paying jobs doesn’t eliminate the low-wage jobs they left behind.

Moreover, we should expect to see more low-wage jobs over time, not fewer, and education won’t change that.  Indeed, as Jack Metzgar and I have both written here, multiple times, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the most growth in jobs is in those that don’t require a college degree.  Regardless of how many people get college degrees, too many jobs in the U.S. will continue to pay low-wages, offer little or no benefits, and provide almost no job security. The only difference will be that workers will have more education and, in most cases, more debt.

If we want to improve the lives of low-wage workers and their families, we need public policies that will create more jobs, increase wages (see Metzgar’s suggestion earlier this year for a law requiring productivity sharing), and protect people from the financial ravages that often accompany illness, natural disasters, and other devastating and expensive events.   But how likely do you think it is that our state or federal legislators will create such policies?

The only possibilities for change lie in activism and organizing.  And what does it take to foster resistance and build solidarity?  As our labor studies colleagues might remind us, learning about economic, political, and social processes as well as the history of activism, theories of class, and narratives of oppression and resistance can prepare people to articulate and advocate for their own interests and for the common good.

Hmm, so maybe education is the answer, after all?

Sherry Linkon

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12 Responses to Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality?

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  5. Reblogged this on Mixing Chicory and commented:
    I thought this was interesting, as education may be seen as a panacea for the impoverished. Education is surely important, but I appreciate how this post underscores how “education simply won’t address the root causes of today’s economic inequality.” The post suggests solutions like “public policies that will create more jobs, increase wages…and protect people from the financial ravages that often accompany illness, natural disasters, and other devastating and expensive events.”
    What do you think about these suggestions or this post?


  6. Richard Butsch says:

    Thanks for raising some important questions, and for your insights that 1. we need to raise wages, 2. we need to act collectively to do so.

    As to the need for education, I have two points:
    1. For once I applaud an Obama proposal, that we put our money into universal preschool education, which numerous studies, including decades of research on Head Start and much more, since that is where it has the most impact and provides the biggest “bang for the buck.” This will provide substantially higher reading and writing and arithmetic skills that will help in learning thinking and problem solving skills.
    2. the second is to revive alternatives to academic skills, substantially expanding apprentice programs for skilled manual labor jobs. If this is combined with higher wages, and civics skills education to enable them to understand social and political issues and the role of collective action in our democracy, they will be able to make a living wage and to be informed and effective citizens who work with others for progressive policies.


  7. Jim Vander Putten says:

    This blog entry seems to restate John Marsh’s 2011 book ‘Class Dismissed: Why We Can’t Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality.’


  8. Well said, Sherry. It is also the case that there are only so many middle class jobs to strive toward, in the best of circumstances. The problem with Obama’s “Race to the Top” is the bottom. That is to say, who says only the best racers deserve the best jobs, even if education really were distributed in a truly equitable way across income groups? All jobs should be worthy of decent compensation. All kinds of work should receive a living wage. Nothing about education alone can change the incredible shift of resources to the top 20% (and especially the top 2%) over the last 40 years. The first idea we need to debunk is meritocracy, that anyone “deserves” so much or so little.


    • Roy Wilson says:


      Re: Meritocracy, I couldn’t agree more. I am writing a book entitled MULLING OVER SCHOOL AND LIFE in which I try to take on the myth of meritocracy in a less abstract manner, drawing on insights from business.

      Statistics only convince those that are neutral or already persuadable. Even individual counterexamples probably don’t dent the armor of those fully committed to the myth, but it might move those in the middle. At least that is my hope.


  9. Kelly Ohler says:

    Who are you trying to convince, Sherry?

    Surely this academic-only pre-occupation with “saving the working class from college debt” masks an attempt to make sure only the wealthy think in terms of getting an education.

    Carry your argument to its logical conclusion. If the working classes did not go to college, because, as you
    claim, it doesn’t make their income equal, nor does it guarantee work, then only the wealthy will be educated. Only those who can pay their tuition up front would know of Karl Marx, strikes, revolutions., Woody Guthrie or Frida Kahlo. Maybe they’ll pick up a name or phrase like “Solidarity” from “Family Guy,” but they won’t “get it.” Or, from the shining public education they receive, they’ll think the Titanic was just a movie. What did the massive number of Twitter feeds read? “No one told us it was history?”

    Oh yes, so we go on to elect people like the dumb-struck slate of Republicans last year, because the working-classes, who vote against their own interests do not know they are doing that because they are too uneducated to know such a thing and must rely on smooth-talking, pretty things who speak to their hearts. And the W-C is too poor to run for office. So what is leftover is to vote for the rich and educated because they must know how to fix things. Yeah, they know how to make a caste/prison system very well out of a republic, don’t they?

    Organizing and activism go hand in hand with education, Sherry. It’s time now to stop the annual push to eject the working classes from universities. Some of us are simply educated enough to see past the token form of “concern.”


    • Roy Wilson says:


      It appears that you are utterly convinced of the truth of your own point of view and therefore unwilling or unable to entertain another perspective. History indicates such is the stuff of fanaticism.


  10. Roy Wilson says:

    Is there any research on how those from working-class origins fare economically compared to those from the middle-class, given a comparable level/type of education(al institution)? I think not, but I could be wrong.


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