If you're paying attention, you can't claim America is a meritocracy. No, it's not impossible to climb from poverty to the top or drop from the top to the bottom, but the deck is heavily stacked against that and getting more so. A college education is rightly seen as a key way to earn a spot in the middle class or above, and one that, in the recent myth of America, is supposedly available to the best and brightest of every class. Not so much:
“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.” [...]
Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.
While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.
The New York Times
' Jason DeParle reports on the struggles of three girls, best friends from Galveston, Texas, to get through college despite their families' low incomes, highlighting many of the challenges such students face. Being at the very top of your class, having taken advantage of every college preparation program and advanced class available to you, being driven and hard-working and smart, isn't necessarily enough if you land in a college environment where most other students had more advanced classes that better prepared them for college work, had tutors and help from their parents and counselors to help them choose the college best suited to them. No matter how hard-working you are, it puts you at a disadvantage if you're working not just to get As but to feed yourself. And then there's the question of just paying for college. Through it all, middle-class students have the advantage not just of parents who can pay more money, but who can advocate for them more effectively, as the sociologist Annette Lareau explains in the article, drawing from her fabulous book Unequal Childhoods
So, for instance, one of the students DeParle follows accumulated extra debt because:
Angelica reported that her mother made $35,000 a year and paid about half of that in rent. With her housing costs so high, Emory assumed the family had extra money and assigned Mrs. Lady an income of $51,000. But Mrs. Lady was not hiding money. She was paying inflated post-hurricane rent with the help of Federal disaster aid, a detail Angelica had inadvertently omitted.
By counting money the family did not have, Emory not only increased the amount it expected Angelica to pay in addition to her financial aid. It also disqualified her from most of the school’s touted program of debt relief. Under the Emory Advantage plan the school replaces loans with grants for families making less than $50,000 a year. Moving Angelica just over the threshold placed her in a less-generous tier and forced her to borrow an additional $15,000 before she could qualify. The mistake will add years to her repayment plan.
She discovered what had happened only recently, after allowing a reporter to review her file with Emory officials.
Angelica was struggling with a new environment, more challenging classes than she'd had in high school, and how to pay for an expensive college and she was trying to do it on her own. Unwilling to saddle her mother—who works at Walmart—with loans, she had her boyfriend co-sign them. She didn't have people to go through her financial aid forms with her to be sure she wasn't missing anything. And it's not because she and the people around her weren't bright or hard-working. They just didn't have the resources or cultural tools to help her make this leap. That's how it is for too many students in our incredibly unequal economy and education system.
If you look at the stories of individuals, there will be a bewildering array of stories like Angelica's and those of her friends, one of whom is on track to finish a four-year public college after five years, with $44,000 in loans, and one of whom completed an associate degree. But the basic point is this: When the graduation gap between affluent people and low-income people is growing, and especially when rich kids with below-average test scores are more likely to graduate than poor kids with above-average test scores, something is wrong. The American dream is broken.