The New York Times had a long Sunday piece on the rising rich-poor gap in higher education. The separate infographic lays out the basic story well: all classes are attending and graduating college at higher rates, but the rich are leaping far ahead. The latest data show that only 29 percent of poor kids enroll in a four-year college, and only 9 percent graduate. On other end, 80 percent of rich kids enroll in four-year colleges, and 54 percent graduate.
The author speculates — as I have argued aggressively here — that the cause of this growing gap is rising income inequality. Simply put: poor kids cannot keep up with rich kids given the differential resources each have access to. If we want to solve that, we have to adopt a more egalitarian income distribution. There is just no way around that. You can make higher education free and you can reform education a hundred different ways, but you wont make the slightest dent in the rich-poor education gap unless you tackle the rich-poor income gap.
This is true for two separate reasons. First, poor kids face a heavier affirmative burden. Living in poverty and in low-income households is just very difficult. Kids that grow up in poverty face greater stress, economic insecurity, and worse neighborhoods. And that’s just to start. Second, rich kids have a huge affirmative boost. In addition to not facing the burdens of growing up low-income, rich kids enjoy the boost of growing up high-income, which is manifested in enrichment activities, among other things. In the Times piece, we find out that parents in the richest quarter of households spend $8,872 per year in enrichment activities for their kids. Parents in the poorest quarter could never afford that level of spending, and spend just $1,315.
For people who read blogs like this, this all probably seems real obvious. It is very obvious. However, you’d be surprised how few people actually think about the issue in this way. Even among those that admit there is an equal opportunity problem, few seem to think that economic inequality in and of itself is an insurmountable impediment to a level playing field. This needs to change if we are to have any hope of giving poor kids a chance. Don’t let people conveniently pretend that poor kids are being held back by rising tuition: they aren’t, not really. Don’t let people pretend that charter schools will level the playing field: they wont, not at all. These are distractions from the real problem, and that is economic inequality. We should start calling these sorts of things out as the distractions that they are.