Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Failures of The American Education System - The American Inequality Series #5

In this final instalment of the American Inequality Series, we analyse how responsible the USA's education system is for the nation's growing economic inequality.

The quality and level of education is seen worldwide to be a strong determinant of an individual's future socioeconomic status. 
Take a look at this graphic (fig.1) from the US Bureau of Labour- a clear positive correlation exists between level of education and earnings, and a clear negative with the level of education and unemployment rate. 

According to the Institute of Education Studies, the median earnings for young adults with a bachelor’s degree was $46,900- the equivalent for high school dropouts was less than half, at $22,900. It’s been getting worse for high schoolers: those who have only graduated from high school have seen their real incomes decline by over a quarter in the last 25 years.

So a correlation can be observed, but is there a causality between the two? The general consensus among academic seems to answer yes- in a well-known study by David Card, of UC Berkeley confirms the causality, concluding that “individual returns to education are declining with the level of education”. Education was proven to be a major factor in unemployment during the recent recession- nearly 4 out of 5 jobs lost during the economic crash belonged to workers with a high school diploma or less. Furthermore, 63% of US jobs now require a postsecondary degree- up from 28% in the 1970s. So education, now more than ever, seems to provide a safety net from both unemployment and low earnings.
Sometimes even a bachelor’s degree is not enough: according to Elena Bajic, CEO of online executive job recruitment site IvyExec, “when an employment recruiter looks at an Ivy League degree, they will look at it more carefully”.

Nevertheless, clearly advanced education of some level plays a role in one’s future economic prosperity. The ‘American Dream’ dictates a desire for opportunity for all to become prosperous- so if education is a key (though not the only) to the door from poverty into prosperity, do all Americans have this opportunity?

The greatest barrier for many Americans to college education (in particular elite the Ivy League elite) is financial. The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA observed choices made by students with regards to college- in particular those who had been offered a place at their first choice. HERI noted that only 56.9% of students enrolled in their first choice college in 2013- and compiled the most significant factors for why so many students didn’t enrol in their first choice, even if they got an offer. Fig.2 shows the 4 most notable reasons- all of them centering around college fees highlights how much finances matter to students wishing to go to college.

Public colleges hold relatively little clout over the education ‘market’ of the USA. Only 5 of the top 20 universities in America are public (state-funded)- a damning statistic, though it must be considered that there are almost three times as many private 4 year institutions as there are public equivalents.

But there is still an increasing pressure among the young people of America to go to top universities- and the majority of these are private colleges, whose national average total fees (for a typical four year study) in 2013-14 were $40,917, $9,000 more than the public equivalents

Two conclusions can be drawn from this data:
1) The poorest of society are struggling to afford a college education, and therefore are more rarely enrolling. 
2) Those who are only able to afford a public college education remain at a disadvantage when it comes to post-graduate employment.

Colleges have attempted to lower economic barriers of entry via financial aid; for example, 70% of students at Harvard University receive such aid from the college. 

However, the effect of this has been minimised by rapidly rising college tuition fees- fig.3 shows how in the past decade, fees have inflated at a rate disproportionate to most other goods and services- and at a strongly contrasting level to real household income, which has in fact fallen in previous years (fig.4)

This has led to a widening gap between education opportunities for the poor and wealthy. The wealthy are mostly in the best position to provide their children with good quality education, which in turn benefits their future income, so they can educate their children well, and so on.

Socio-economic mobility is not dead- successful ‘rags to riches’ stories are not unheard of- however for many lower class people the environment and opportunity is not present to help them succeed academically- and the state of the US jobs market means they often remain poor for their whole life as a result.
Mohammad Lone Editor