College Isn't the Answer to Inequality

The biggest impediment to reducing inequality, poverty, and social immobility is our country's misplaced obsession with college education. Arne Duncan spoke for every other peddler of generic platitudes when he remarked in August of last year that "the only way to end poverty is through education." Duncan singles out poverty, but you can hear the same chorus for all of our other distributive woes. For this post, I thought I'd share three short reasons why right-thinking people should reject this conventional wisdom about the ability of college education in particular to fix these kinds of economic injustices.

First, college attainment does not actually level the social mobility playing field. The running narrative is that the reason rich and poor kids tend to remain that way into adulthood is the education achievement gap. Rich kids have the money and other resources to get college educations while poor kids do not. Therefore, to achieve social mobility, we need to put a heavy focus on getting poor kids into and through college.

This story is flatly contradicted by the data we have on social mobility. Differential rates of college completion are certainly a substantial part of the story, but we have data that controls for college completion, and it too shows a major class disparity in life outcomes. Of kids who do not complete college, those from the richest fifth of families are more than 8x more likely to wind up in the richest fifth as adults than kids from the poorest fifth. Of kids who do complete college, the rich kids are more than 5x more likely to wind up as rich adults than poor kids. And now the real kicker: rich kids who do not complete college are 2.5x more likely to wind up rich than poor kids who do complete college. That's right: you are better off being born rich and not going to college then being born poor and getting a degree. The college education fix is not sufficient to fix our social mobility problems.

Second, there is no reason to expect running more kids through college will reduce inequality or low-end poverty. The narrative on this one is as simple as it is naive. The idea is that those who attend college do well economically, and that therefore putting nearly everyone through college will mean nearly everyone does well. It doesn't take a genius to see how that solution doesn't really scale. If educational attainment increases, but the supply of good jobs does not, all that results is credential inflation. The bar for securing one of the few good jobs moves ever-higher, requiring Master's degrees or a long string of unpaid internships. It's not hard to guess what class of people wins the credential inflation arms race: the same one that doesn't even need to go to college to have a decent shot at winding up on top.

Beyond that more theoretical exposition, the last 4 decades has been an excellent experiment for this idea. In that period, we nearly tripled overall college attainment. That tripling coincided with substantial productivity gains, but also coincided with forty years of income stagnation, growing inequality, and flat poverty rates. More recently, we've even seen labor's share of the national income take a plunge. With productivity gains flowing almost entirely to the top 10 percent and now to capital, the college education solution to our distributive problems looks to be even more of a dead-end than it has been in the recent past.

Finally, there is every reason to be pessimistic about the idea that you can even the educational score without first evening the distributive score. The Education Reform crowd in particular like to say things like "poverty is not an excuse." That's a nice slogan, but it's wrong: poverty is a fantastic excuse. Trying to learn while living in poverty is mighty difficult. Mountains upon mountains of data show dramatic correlations between family income and educational performance, as well as other cognitive indicators. Leaving inequality as it is while trying a few schooling gimmicks has not shown itself to be very effective thus far, and probably won't any time soon.

What's so bizarre about the education focus is that there is a totally dominant strategy for fixing our distributive woes: change our institutions so that the national income is more evenly distributed. This would make dramatic dents in inequality, poverty, and social mobility right now. There is no need for any intermediate educational step that would take generations to implement if it works at all. Changing the distribution is the best, fasest, and easiest way to, well, change the distribution. As a bonus, it is also likely to improve education in the process, which should make the education-obsessed happy as well. Sadly this strategy will never see the light of the day in our discourse because we are drowning in an endless stream of education bromides.