“The Education Equalizer” by John Edward

John Edward teaches economics at Bentley and UMass Lowell. He’s a frequent contributor of columns on economic issues. Here is his latest:

The runner was working hard but falling behind. She was assigned to an outside lane due to bad luck of the draw. Competitors, taking advantage of the inside lanes, were lapping her. Race directors finally allowed her to move to an inside lane. It was too late.

According to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “In America, education is still the great equalizer.” Governor Patrick said Community Colleges could become Massachusetts’ great equalizer. According to U101.com (a web site that helps people find a college) “College is the great equalizer.”

Is college worth it — it depends. Is college the great equalizer – no, it is too late.

An affordable college education can put young people on the right track. Expecting colleges to make sure all students are in the same lane is unrealistic.

In the U.S., 41.5 percent of adults 25 to 29 years old have a college degree (including Associates degrees). Some young adults deviate from the college track due to financial reasons. We need to address that problem. Some young adults are not ready for college. We need to address that problem as well. However, for many, college will never be the right path.

Not everyone lucky enough to attend college starts at the same point. Worse yet, the college experience in some ways reinforces inequality.

Consider two freshmen, Mitt and Liz, studying at a state university.

Mitt attended a private academy in high school. He has traveled extensively and lived away from home. He enrolled as a resident student, and will not be in need of a work-study job. He has the best technology available and his high school experience taught him how to use it. During his 4 years (or 5 or 6 if necessary) he will have the ability to accept unpaid internships and study abroad. His parents, both with advanced degrees, can offer him guidance in selecting a program of study more likely to lead to financial success. Through his mother, an alumna, he already knows some of the professors and administrators.

You might wonder why Mitt is not attending a more prestigious private school. Turns out he might not have even made it into the state university if not for his parents hiring a private tutor to raise his SAT scores.

Liz started high school in one urban area and then had to move with her single mom to a new city, and a new school. She has always lived at home, and has never traveled far, but now she will be commuting to school 5 days a week. She has the school-issued laptop that will have to last her 4 years. Despite earning a scholarship she will have to work part-time (full-time during the summer) and knows going in she has to finish in 4 years. She is proud to be the first in her family to attend college, but comes in not knowing anyone, and not knowing what to expect.

In a book released last year, two Sociology professors explore “the Black Box of Higher Education.” The title is Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. One conclusion: “how many large state schools organize the college experience systematically disadvantages all but the most affluent – and even some of these students.”

The authors, along with research assistants, spent a year living on a dormitory floor with about fifty women starting their college career. For four years after they conducted follow-up interviews. They projected post-college prospects and concluded: “college did not close the gap between more and less privileged women in our study.”

Their research focused on one state university. Their sample was by no means random and was rather small. Much of their focus is on the “party pathway” that this state university promotes in order to attract “affluent, socially oriented students” (therefore the title of the book).

However, much of what they found and discuss would apply to Mitt and Liz or any students from different socio-economic classes trying to improve, or maintain, their class status. None of this is unique to state-run universities.

In theory, Mitt and Liz have equal opportunity. They are running on the same track.

In reality, Liz has an opportunity but not an equal opportunity. She is running on the same track but in an outside lane. If she works hard she may get to move to an inner lane during her junior or senior year. With respect to career prospects and social mobility, it is most likely too late.

There are no guarantees in life. Despite all his advantages, Mitt may find Liz catching up and surpassing him. However, that is not the most likely scenario and certainly not what the authors of Paying for the Party observed. They also cite quantitative studies that provide “strong evidence that parental resources advantage affluent students in college access, admission, performance, and graduation.”

Affluence has always been a very good predictor of educational achievement. Now, as income inequality has become severe, affluence has become an even more reliable predictor. As concluded in a recent Stanford University study:

At the same time that family income has become more predictive of children’s academic achievement, so have educational attainment and cognitive skills become more predictive of adults’ earnings. The combination of these trends creates a feedback mechanism that may decrease intergenerational mobility. As the children of the rich do better in school, and those who do better in school are more likely to become rich, we risk producing an even more unequal and economically polarized society.

College cannot be the great equalizer. Education can be, but we need to start earlier. In a recent article in The Economist on “tomorrow’s jobs” they suggest:

Far more money should be spent on pre-schooling, since the cognitive skills that children learn in their first few years define much of their future potential.

That is why it is so discouraging that the Town of Chelmsford cannot even find a way to provide full-day kindergarten. More on early education next time.