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Journal Issue: Opportunity in America Volume 16 Number 2 Fall 2006

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

Higher Education, Inequality, and Social Mobility

The traditional role of colleges and universities in promoting social mobility has attracted the attention of both policymakers and social science researchers. In his discussion of what he calls “education-based meritocracy,” John Goldthorpe explains that a merit-based higher education system can offset the role of social class in determining economic outcomes. In a merit-based system, he notes, postsecondary schooling is a filter that keeps parents' economic position from simply passing straight through to their children, thus simultaneously promoting economic efficiency, social justice, and social mobility.10

Goldthorpe posits three requirements for moving toward a less class-based society. First, the link between individuals' social origins and their schooling must increasingly reflect only their ability. Second, the link between their schooling and their eventual employment must be strengthened by qualifications acquired through education. And third, the link between schooling and employment must become constant for individuals of differing social origins.11

Goldthorpe notes that Michael Young, in his important 1958 book on The Rise of Meritocracy, feared that in Britain the effect of higher education on social equality was being undermined by the interaction of public policies, the selectivity of colleges and universities, and evolving labor-hiring practices. He notes that Young was concerned about the way that “the purposes of the Education Act of 1944 were being interpreted by post-war governments. The Act established ‘secondary education for all,' and was intended to give all children the fullest possible opportunity to develop their abilities, whatever form or level they might take.”12 In Young's view, the 1944 law was being used increasingly as a means of social selection—in the name of “merit”—for different grades of employment with differing levels of reward in terms both of money and of status.

Young's fear, in mid-twentieth-century Britain, was that the employment process was undermining the goal of social equality. Today, however, the selection processes within higher education itself also appear to be a problem. The high concentration in the nation's colleges and universities of youth from the top echelons of parental income and social class is disturbing and appears to be increasing. It exists at all levels of postsecondary schooling but is especially evident at the nation's best (most selective) colleges and universities.

Two forces, operating in different directions, appear to have caused these growing inequalities. First, increasingly affluent higher income parents with one or two children invest time, money, and influence to ensure their children's academic success from preschool through graduate school. And second, children of less well-educated and less well-to- do parents begin the “college education game” later, with fewer choices and fewer resources. For example, in 2000 parents at the ninetieth percentile of the income distribution had available an average of $50,000 to support each child, including his or her schooling, as against $9,000 per child for families in the tenth percentile.13

Although resilience, luck, and persistence pay off for a minority of low-income children, the odds are increasingly stacked against their success.14 Therefore, policies designed to address these inequalities should focus not simply on the point at which students move from secondary to postsecondary education, but on the long-term path from kindergarten through college graduation.

Contrary to its stated goals and repeated claims, the U.S. higher education system fails to equalize opportunities among students from high- and low-income families. Rather, the current process of admission to, enrollment in, and graduation from colleges and universities contributes to economic inequality as measured by income and wealth. The system thus seems to intensify and reinforce differences in economic status. Though college attendance rates are rising, college graduation rates for U.S. students 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. If so, the current system of higher education will contribute to growing income and wealth inequality, which in turn will exacerbate these inequalities across future generations.

Does this mean that higher education retards social mobility? Not necessarily. But it seems clear that higher education does not promote social equality as effectively as it often claims to do and as it is popularly perceived to do.15 We therefore suggest some policies that would increase and equalize access to higher education and hence improve social mobility.

In this article, we explore the broad issues facing educators and policymakers seeking to eliminate income- and wealth-related disparities in college attendance and graduation. We first summarize some research findings and present some new measures of inequality in college access and enrollment. We then explore how elementary and secondary education contribute to inequality in postsecondary education, as well as how differences in the kind of information available to youth of different backgrounds affect how they apply to college, how they navigate the admission process, and once they are admitted, how long they continue in college and whether they graduate. We also consider the implications for college success of the different varieties of higher education, including the community college system and remediation programs designed to ease inequalities among enrolled students. Each is important for assessing the overall effect of higher education on both economic inequality and mobility. Finally, we suggest policies that would enable higher education to enhance social mobility and advance the life chances of disadvantaged children.16 We concentrate on the most recent trends in college-going, but refer to the work of others who present evidence on longer trends in earlier periods.17