Goodbye, Horatio Alger
As for going to a good college, family background is even more important. One study ranked colleges into four tiers and broke families into quarters according to their socioeconomic status (family income, occupation and parental education). Only 3 percent of those students in the lowest quarter of families attended a tier-one school, while 74 percent of those from the top quarter of families did. By contrast, 21 percent of those in the bottom quarter attended a community college.
The issue is not merely how much it costs to go to college. Researchers point out that the well-off have more money to spend on developing their children's abilities and interests, and on prepping them for college entrance exams; they expose them to more books and other intellectual stimuli at an early age; they are more aware of how the college admissions process works; and they can afford to send their children to better primary and secondary schools.
Reform, then, is not just a matter of making college more affordable. Evidence that high-quality preschool programs work to improve children's educational capacities is now overwhelming. Thus, policies to make high-quality pre-K education universally available should be a high priority in America. K-12 education generally requires serious improvements, especially in poorer neighborhoods. There can also be many useful reforms of college subsidization without increasing federal funds. Smeeding and Haveman propose a number of such reforms, including funneling state assistance directly to low-income students rather than to the institutions themselves.
In sum, the dirty little secret is that the central role of college in getting a good job is now probably reinforcing a class society, not leveling it. Add to this the disparity in educational quality for pre-K and K-12, and we are getting to the heart of the matter. This is essentially why Bhashkar Mazumder and his colleagues are probably right when they argue statistically that mobility has declined in modern America. As Smeeding and Haveman summarize, "Though college attendance rates are rising, college graduation rates are growing slowly, if at all, and changes in the composition of the college-eligible and college graduating populations appear to perpetuate existing class differences."
I am not saying that improving access to good education is alone the answer to America's class disparities. But it is the central one. In the nation today, a college education provides access to a decent job. And the way the nation has organized itself, adequate health insurance and a decent retirement income also depend on the quality and duration of one's job. Nearly 24 percent of American workers with only a high school diploma, for example, have no health insurance, compared with less than 10 percent of those with college degrees. For high school graduates who have just entered the job market, both healthcare and pension coverage have plunged since the 1970s.
Again, let me emphasize that college is not a panacea. Healthcare and pension coverage have also declined for college graduates, though not as dramatically. And incomes are by no means rising rapidly for typical college graduates, especially men. Moreover, even for them, incomes are growing in a highly unequal way, and American economic life has become less secure. But college graduates are the ones who have a reasonable chance to make it through to a full and decent life. And to produce more college graduates, improvements must begin with early childhood and, arguably, even with prenatal care, and move up the ladder, including K-12.
Despite the anti-Republican rhetoric of some of the Democratic leadership, little in the agenda of the new Democratic majority so far will change these prospects. The strategy of the new majority may admittedly be a sensible one: Make a few broadly acceptable policy reforms, such as raising the minimum wage, modestly raising college subsidies and getting some drug costs down. Then, win the presidency in 2008, and at last begin to address the enormous challenges left to the nation by twenty-five years of substantial neglect.
That of course is the optimistic view of well-meaning legislators. And some are talking seriously about bolder programs down the road. Senator Edward Kennedy, now chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has proposed forgiving all college loans after ten years if graduates enter public service professions, for example. John Edwards, now running for President, has made universal healthcare a centerpiece of his campaign. Kennedy has proposed a Medicare-for-all universal healthcare program in his book America Back on Track (I worked on the book with him). Several states, now possibly including California, are taking the lead in providing universal healthcare to residents.
But the federal programs needed are decidedly on the legislative back burner. It seems that too many Democrats, arguably the most influential of them, are themselves sincerely skeptical of government and are unwilling to raise the tax money to do the job properly. Even if they see clearly how the state of the nation has decayed, many simply believe it is politically unwise to bring the issues out of the shadows. Meantime, the American promise is being betrayed, and no one knows the level of cynicism this will generate over time in a large portion of the population. We may expect a blithe and even sanguine attitude toward the true state of the economy from the old Republican majority. But too many Democrats neglect the urgency of the nation's challenges. Class war? If it is necessary to make America a just and equal society again, yes. You bet.