The Not-So-Great Equalizer: Higher Education’s Role in Fighting Income Inequality
Income inequality, defined by Barack Obama as “the greatest challenge of our time,” has been a growing problem in the United States for decades. One of the many solutions proposed by Obama to solve this problem is to increase the propagation of a college education. Obama recently hosted education leaders from across the nation, including Claremont McKenna College’s President Hiram Chodosh, for a White House Summit to discuss efforts made by high schools and colleges across the nation to increase college participation rates.
While there are many proponents of education reform who argue that propagating a college education is the way to reduce income disparity, I argue that, looking at the current demographic realities of the US, this is a noble but, ultimately, futile effort.
In his recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, Dr. Charles Murray argues that simply increasing the number of people who obtain a Bachelor’s Degree cannot solve income inequality. Murray contends that “the simple possession of a bachelor’s degree does not come close to capturing the complicated relationship between education and the nature of the new upper class,” as there are many hereditary factors which lead to income and cultural differences, which, in turn, create this income inequality.
Elite colleges have become a kind of sorting machine that allow for the intermingling of, mostly, rich, smart people. This is not because colleges have not done their job in allowing for the admission of a diverse student body, it is because rich people just tend to have better scores and higher application rates. This creates a situation where colleges become filled with rich, smart people, most of whom are going to find their future spouse there. Economists call this phenomenon assortative mating, the tendency of people with similar characteristics to marry and start families. Rich Morin of the Pew Research Center states, “Better-educated people are increasingly more likely to marry other better-educated people while those with less formal schooling are more likely to choose a less well-educated partner.”
According to Murray, the urge to be around people who are like-minded is a basic human impulse that starts at a very early age. So when people in college marry, this only keeps the people in this class separated, thereby perpetuating this income gap between the college-educated and their non-college-educated peers. This means that in order to truly get rid of income inequality, one would somehow have to quell this human instinct to mate with people that are just as smart, rich, or happy as us.
A Pew Research Center study further details the growth of the income disparity as a result of a college education. According to this study, in 1960, a couple composed of spouses who had a high school education would earn about 103 percent of the average household income. In 2005, the same couple would only earn 83 percent. Similarly, couples that both completed post-graduate studies in 1960 earned approximately 176 percent of the average household income, while, in 2005, that same couple would earn 219 percent.
Another way to interpret this would be that the income disparity has only increased between the educated and non-educated despite the increase in college-educated people. Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal states that “despite Washington’s huge investment in access, since 1970 the gap in college completion rates between students from the bottom and top fifths of the income ladder has doubled. Those from the top fifth are now seven times more likely to graduate than those from the bottom.”
Murray states that tests like the SAT were supposed to level the playing field for everyone, from the rural fields of Iowa to the elite private schools of the northeast. However, his studies show that children with at least one college educated parent tend to score higher on any test than students with none. And because college education is linked to higher income, this generally results in upper middle class students applying to more elite schools.
Critics of this theory of cognitive segregation argue that it is luck or good fortune that the well-off were born into their circumstances, and this does not inherently make them smarter. However, like Murray says, the adage, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” came about due to observed reality. Murray argues that, if a child does not inherit the intelligence of their parents, the fortune won in one generation will not necessarily survive forward generations.
Keeping in mind Murray’s analysis, I would argue for a different strategy to combat income inequality. I contend that we must foster an education system that truly caters to children’s’ different learning abilities, thereby enabling them with tools for success in whichever type of employment best utilizes their strengths. One example of such a program would be apprenticeships. Apprenticeships would allow more scholarly children to continue in their education, while allowing for children more talented in other areas to go to trade schools and take part in on-the-job training. This would allow children to cultivate their strengths, irrespective of where those strengths may lie, which would, consequently, increase all children’s chances of success.
In trying to increase access to college to reduce income inequality, supporters of education reform have, in fact, missed the crux of the issue. The true problem lies not in increasing college access, but in addressing the stringent education standards that have only alienated children who have no hope of succeeding in the current academic climate. If there is any hope of reducing income inequality, it has to come from a reform of the education that will enable children to succeed in their own right. This can then create multiple pools of success as opposed to the one metric we have today: college.