The power to undo the past, Aristotle reminds us, is denied even to God. Each of us is born into certain conditions beneficial or detrimental — into either wealth or poverty — and each of us accordingly embarks upon life’s course with either a boost or a burden. In this respect the democratic notion that we are all born equal is pure fantasy. At best a democracy can try to provide equal opportunity for every citizen to develop his-her full potential.
Education has been this nation’s greatest leveler historically, giving those born into conditions of poverty the opportunity, by dint of hard work and the cultivation of intelligence, to improve their lot in life. I look to my own father as an example. One of six children born into a working class family in Akron, Ohio, where neither parent went to college, he alone graduated from college and later ran a successful business. The odds were against him achieving material success but he was able to rely on his physical attributes to land an athletic scholarship and thus earn a university degree. His brothers and sisters were not so fortunate. Today, as Timothy Noah observed in his new book, “The Great Divergence,” “parentage is a greater determinant of a man’s future earnings than it is of his height or weight.” Dad was the exception who proved that rule.
A child born into a low-income family in a poor region of America, where property taxes are low and hence the local elementary, middle and high schools are poorly funded, is a child whose chances of getting into college are minimal. A study by the Pew Charitable Trust shows that 65 percent of children born in the bottom fifth will remain in the bottom two-fifths as adults. Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin reports that among “high-achieving students, just 44 percent of those whose families are in the bottom 25 percent of annual income attend college, compared with 80 percent of those whose families are in the top 25 percent.” As the median income for male college graduates is $61,175 and for high school graduates just $33,805, children from rich families are highly likely to sustain their financial advantages because they go to college, while poor kids, who cannot afford college, are likely to continue to be poor in the future. In brief, the higher education system reproduces inequality from one generation to next.
For the vast majority of citizens, the American Dream cannot be realized in the absence of a good education. And more and more, the education system is not helping to reduce inequality but instead is exacerbating the problem. A recent symposium of experts addressed the question, “Has Higher Education Become an Engine of Inequality?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 6, 2012). Richard Wolin cites statistics showing that children from families earning $90,000 or more have a 50 percent chance of earning an undergraduate degree while children from families earning between $60,000 and $90,000 have only a one in four chance of graduating. Where family incomes are less than $35,000, the odds of those children earning a degree are one in seventeen.
The nonpartisan Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development warned last month that the United States suffers from the highest income inequality and relative poverty of 34 advanced nations and it advised U.S. policymakers that the best way to address the problem is improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. No coincidence, the U.S. also ranks dead last in college-participation rates among advanced nations.
Our American democracy faces the prospect of creating a near-permanent underclass if conditions of extreme income inequality continue to keep a college education out of the reach of children who come from low-income families. While no society or government can, as Aristotle noted, “undo the past,” they can recognize the errors of the past and rectify them in the future. Federal programs such as Head Start need to be bolstered (not cut, as the LePage administration recently did), additional state and federal support needs to be directed to low-income regions whose residents’ property taxes are inadequate to building superb schools, public universities need to keep tuition low and private colleges need to make scholarship awards based on need rather than merit. Sustaining democracy, John Dewey pointed out, requires that society collectively give all children the same quality education that we want for our own children.
Roger W. Bowen lives in Prospect Harbor and is president emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz.