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?