Two myths are ubiquitous. First, if college weren’t so expensive, everyone could get a good education and have a good life. Second, if selective colleges enroll more students from low-income backgrounds, they could solve our problems of inequality.
Well-meaning concerns about financial barriers to higher education and the insufficient resources available to colleges that enroll students from less privileged backgrounds too often lead to unrealistic ideas about how colleges and universities can change the world. . Changing the world in which educational institutions operate is a prerequisite for making them true engines of meaningful social change.
Going to college – and in particular getting at least a bachelor’s degree – is actually the best way for most individuals to increase their chances of having a secure economic future and a range of satisfying career options. Calls on the government to make college “free” and for elite institutions to enroll more low-income students are rooted in this reality.
But by the time young people reach college age, our society has already distributed opportunities so unequally that it is impossible for colleges to close more than a fraction of the gulf. Rather than just focusing on how colleges can provide more opportunities for students who struggled in their youth, we should view college as a critical step on a journey that begins at (or even before) the birth.
Some children grow up in comfortable homes in safe neighborhoods and attend well-equipped early childhood centers. Their parents spend a lot of time and money providing them with opportunities, exposing them to a wide range of learning experiences, and providing them with educational toys, lessons, and activities. High-income families spend more than three times as much on extracurricular educational activities as low-income families.
On the other hand, too many children grow up moving frequently between run-down housing in crime-ridden neighborhoods. They are lucky if adults can provide them with three meals a day. They have limited access to health care and must fend for themselves from an early age. Their stress levels are often out of the ordinary.
Some children attend well-equipped elementary and secondary schools designed to prepare them for selective colleges. Others go to schools whose main objective is to ensure the physical safety of children.
And we expect colleges to level the playing field for all these kids?
The biggest loss of college opportunities with the demise of the Build Back Better Act isn’t free community college. These include provisions for expanded child tax credits, investments in child care and universal early childhood education. Investing in children is the only way to develop young people who are ready to take full advantage of a college education.
Yes, well-resourced colleges should do more to find the small proportion of young people who overcome the disadvantages of their backgrounds and are ready to take advantage of the best educational opportunities available. Yes, states should ensure that community colleges and other institutions that educate and will continue to educate most people seeking upward mobility have more resources to support those aspirations and that colleges use those resources to efficient manner. But these efforts alone will never be enough to reverse the damage done to children deprived of opportunities earlier in life.
And after graduating from college, students face another set of punitive structures that exacerbate inequality. Racial and gender discrimination in the labor market has proven to be an intractable problem. The median earnings of young Blacks with a bachelor’s degree working full time are 13% lower (about $9,000) than the median of similar white adults. The median earnings of young women with a bachelor’s degree are 18% lower (about $12,000) than the median of similar men. A combination of factors contributes to these differences, but the inequality is evident.
Not having a university degree or having attended a less prestigious institution would matter less in a different job market. Better worker protections, a higher minimum wage, stronger unions, more on-the-job training for entry-level workers: many policy changes could reduce income inequality among adults entering the labor market. work with different characteristics, skills and experiences. Less unequal circumstances for working adults would in turn contribute to more equitable starting points for their children.
None of these issues should let colleges or the governments that support them off the hook. The more we can do to improve college access and success for youth and older adults seeking to improve their lives, the stronger our society will be. We must reduce the financial, logistical and academic barriers that students face.
But we must not allow the importance of investment in higher education to overshadow the fundamental problems. Investing in children should be high on the priority list of college opportunity advocates. Improving neighborhoods, schools and access to health care – and putting money in parents’ pockets – can transform lives. Reducing inequalities in the labor market will allow more children to grow up in secure households. Focusing on structural reforms that will erode some of the systemic inequalities that people face at all stages of their lives can create an environment that allows colleges and universities to provide the best possible opportunities for all who aspire to higher education. .