Where You Go To College Matters: Social Class and The Rise to Financial Independence In Emerging Adulthood


This week on the adulthood project I continued to research the inequality in the higher education system in America and how it can actually elongate the road to achievement of financial independence for many middle to lower class students. Since financial independence is a high maker for reaching adulthood it seems our education system, paired with the instability of the economy, is helping to promote this longevity in emerging adulthood. I looked at which specific kinds of universities are fostering this inequality among students, and searched more into the politics of this phenomenon to see if the government is more helpful or hurtful in promoting clear paths toward the American Dream.

I first read a review of the book, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, by Suzanne Mettler, reviewed by Nick Anderson of the Washington Post. Anderson describes the key points in Mettler’s book, who focuses on the lack of federal funding for the higher education institutions in America since the 1980s”. She calls the period from the 1960s – 1980s “the zenith of mass public higher education.” stating, “Those were boom years for community colleges and public universities across the country”. Her main point is not that it’s not that these policies created in the 60s-80s were abandoned but they remain unaltered in a time where the economy is much different from where it was at the time these bills were created. Anderson agrees, “The rise of partisan polarization hindered that quiet but crucial work”. So Mettler’s concludes that congress needs to start making decisions and changes because colleges and universities cannot grow and prosper without effective federal support. I agree that the government has to adapt to the changes of the economy and social world, and be able to see these changes and alter previous bills and polices. I have been reading many different articles on this topic of inequality in our education system and one of the things that remain constant is that policy makers must adapt to the changes in the economy and because it is starting to takes its toll on our education system. I also found it interesting that every article I have read thus far has been written or reviewed from someone who attended an Ivy League school, that being not as ironic as I would have previously thought. That fact just solidifies my point that these high paying jobs like reporting for the New york Times and Washington Post are only available to people who not only have a bachelors degree or higher, but have a degree from a prestigious school which only 9% of attendees come from the lower classes. This just provides more evidence to show that the upper classes have far more opportunity, and that the American Dream is beginning to fade faster and faster for those lower classes.

In an article in the New York Times by Mettler, College the Great Un-Leveler, she provides some stunning statistics from her book helping to bring to light the severity of this issue of inequality among social classes.  She suggests that the “…higher education is becoming a caste system, separate and unequal for students with different family incomes”. Where students attend college affects their chances of graduating and how indebted they will become in the process. She sates that, “Three out of four adults who grow up in the top quarter of the income spectrum earn baccalaureate degrees by age 24, but it’s only one out of three in the next quarter down. In the bottom half of the economic distribution, it’s less than one out of five for those in the third bracket and fewer than one out of 10 in the poorest”. Even with research on this topic these numbers are still surprising for myself. I like to think that everyone has an equal chance to obtain the American Dream and I still believe that it can happen for anyone no matter your social class, but it is becoming less apparent in a time where social classes have such increasing gap of difference and opportunities.

I read another article that discusses what kinds of colleges actually graduate the most students, and which colleges and universities have significantly low graduation rates and why. This article, Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t) shows that the colleges with the lowest tuition bills are more likely to only have one in four students graduate than the more elite expensive colleges and universities. This is because people from lower classes who still want to achieve a degree but do not have the financial means to attend a more expensive college opt for the schools with the lowest cost. These institutions do not have the facilities, faculty, and support financially these other more expensive schools have. Many students struggle to work to pay for school and attend school simultaneously, and this causes many students to cut their journey short. These low gradation rates decrease investments into these schools and the cycle continues where the more expensive elite schools graduate almost all their students and receive ample funding. This idea of students having to drop out of school does not have to do with their lack of abilities, but with their lack of monetary funds. President Obama has been trying to decrease this notion of inequality in our education system by lobbying for expansion for Pell grants and federal student lending. President Obama stated, “There is this huge cohort of talent that we’re not tapping”, in regards to these college students with the abilities and intelligence to attain a degree, but without the financial means.

With an end to government paralysis, a stabling economy, and less selective and more diverse acceptance policy into top-tier institutions, the playing field can be leveled- out for students across America. The caste system of colleges and universities of the United States can be infiltrated by people of diverse social backgrounds climbing latter to educational and financial success, which can help increase the pace to achieve the internal or external status of adulthood.