Expert: Stratification Undermines American Higher Education’s Capacity for Enabling Social Mobility

WASHINGTON – Although a college education has increasingly become the sole path into the shrunken middle class, social stratification within the world of higher education threatens to undermine the American Dream.

That was one of the major points that economist Anthony Carnevale made during a presentation Monday at the annual at the 2012 NCCEP/GEAR UP Conference.

“Our post-secondary system has become highly segregated by class, by race and by ethnicity,” Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, said during a workshop titled, “The Growing Importance of Higher Education, Attaining Middle Class Earnings, and the Increasing Stratification of Access.”

“It is more and more the case that the four-year college system is whiter and more affluent, [while] the two-year system is browner and blacker and more working class and some poor,” Carnevale said, noting that, for the most part, four-year degrees trump two-year degrees in terms of the salaries they command.

“In the end, the system is predictably reflecting the advantaged in the society,” Carnevale said.

Though education serves a variety of noble purposes that transcend the needs of employers, Carnevale suggested to the GEAR UP professionals that one of their primary aims should be to prepare students to get education that pays.

GEAR UP (the acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a federal discretionary grant program designed to increase the number of low-income students prepared for college. NCCEP is the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships.

The program provides six-year grants to states and partnerships to provide services at high-poverty middle and high schools. GEAR UP grantees serve cohorts of students starting in the seventh grade and follow them through high school.

“You’re gearing people up to get them to move on to get some education that will work for them,” Carnevale said, admitting that he had a “bias” that wasn’t necessarily shared by educators. “My bias about it is that what they will be interested in most of all is education that gets them a job.”

Getting an education to become a better citizen and neighbor are all worthy things, Carnevale said, “but we also know in the American system if you don’t’ have a job, it’s all for naught.”

“If you can’t get a job in the American system, it’s very hard to be a good citizen, good family member, productive member of the community or improve yourself through learning,” Carnevale said.

Much of Carneveale’s talk consisted of an overview of how and why the relative value of a college degree, particularly in relation to a high school diploma, has increased over the past four decades as entry-level jobs that offered on-the-job training and opportunities for employees to move from manual labor to higher positions within the company have waned.

Institutions of higher education, particularly community colleges, have had to step in to pick up the slack, essentially becoming America’s de facto workforce development system, Carnevale said.

Students would benefit from seeing how much they can earn if they pursue certain majors, Carnevale said, and while systems that tie wage data to transcript data are arriving “with some speed in some states,” there’s no aggressive movement afoot to do such a thing.

“How they will be used is not clear but one way they may be used is to inform young people of income tied to education by specific type, but there’s some resistance to that,” Carnevale said of systems that tie wage data to transcript data.

Johnnie Williams, a GEAR UP staffer at UNLV, came to Carnevale’s talk to get insight on how he and other GEAR UP workers should be advising students given the fact that the labor landscape is rapidly changing.

“GEAR UP is about a seven-year program that runs from 6th or 7th to 12th grade,” Williams said. “Where you start with a kid in a six-year-period could shift to a whole different system” by the time the student finishes college.

“Helping these first-generation college students is not just about getting them to college but anticipating the moving target of career and the economy,” Williams said.

Though Carnevale had previously emphasized getting an education that pays, when it comes to advising students, he noted that educators “start with the person.”

“It troubles me to see all this business input” into higher education, Carnevale said, noting that employers will emphasize the need for certain skills, whereas educators start with the interests and values of the person.

“We know that personality variables are just as valuable as cognitive ability in determining whether or not people are going to make it,” Carnevale said. “It isn’t just about giving them an economic target and slotting them into it.”

The GEAR UP conference – which continues this week –drew 1,550 GEAR UP workers from across the country, organizers said. Students and GEAR UP workers plan to visit members of Congress Tuesday to advocate for GEAR UP. The FY 2011 appropriation for GEAR UP was $302,816,154, approximately 6.3% below the 2010 level, according to the Education Department.