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Higher Education and Social Mobility in the US

Nelson Mandela once said that education was the most powerful weapon to change the world. Eduction is also considered an indispensable instrument to promote social mobility within a society, allowing children from low income families to have better earnings than their parents, ant to jump on the social lift towards a higher social structure.

Some studies have tried to study this subject, mainly papers focused on the American case given the availability of information for the US.

One interesting result of Robert Haveman and Timothy Smeeding’s work on the education role in the promotion of social mobility in America shows that the US education system fails to equalize opportunities among students from high and low income families. If we consider higher education, in the top-tier colleges and American universities (ranked by quality) almost three-quarters of the entering class is from the highest socioeconomic quartile.

Socioeconomic Status of Entering Classes, by College Selectivity (%)

 

Socioeconomic status quartile

Colleges grouped by selectivity

Bottom

Top

Tier 1

3

74

Tier 2

7

46

Tier 3

10

35

Tier 4

16

35

Community Colleges

21

22

 

Proportion of Students who enroll in colleges and universities within twenty months of graduating from High School (per quartile of parents income)

High School Class of 1992

Total

Technical School

2-year College

4-year College

Bottom quartile

60

10

22

28

Top quartile

90

5

19

66

Total

75

7

23

45

 

Looking at this data, we can see that youth from the poorest families do not go to colleges as much as much as ones from richer families, and that students belonging to the bottom quartile that did go to college were in some way more concentrated in vocational and technical institutions, while those from the richest families tended to enroll in four-year colleges.

Parents’ income seems to be quite relevant to explain access to higher education. The size of the impact of parents’ income in the capability of one to reach college may be a proxy to the level of social mobility in a society.

Therefore, it’s important to analyze in order to measure the capacity of the American educational system to be rewarding, centered on meritocracy, and to be working as a social lift, is to look if the best students from low income families in high school get to the best colleges and universities. Haverman and Smeeding considered 146 top-tier colleges and

 

universities depicting that using an SAT equivalent score of 1420 as the cutoff for “high ability”, they show that 12.8 percent of all high-ability students are from the bottom two income quintiles, a total of about 4300 students. Today these colleges could enroll more such students without decreasing selection standards.

We can conclude that the allocation of high quality education services is concentrated among youth from families with the highest economic status. What leads to assume that low income families suffer from capital restrictions that undermine their possibility to afford tuition fees and other education costs of the top tier school, the ones that allow students to present better future wage perspectives.

By Rui Rodrigues

 

References:

Robert Haveman and Timothy Smeeding, The Role of Higher Education in Social Mobility, 2006

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Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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