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Want Upward Mobility? Get an Education – If You Can Afford It


America, for all its fanfare about providing equal opportunity, is becoming increasingly stratified. Income inequality is growing, quashing the ability for the poor and middle-class to achieve upward mobility. And education, the great equalizer, has priced itself out of reach for many families, deepening the divide.

(Photo credit: Will Folsom / Flickr)

A Brookings Institute study about the economic realities of social mobility and education found that incomes declined for about a third of American families in the past few years. 

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“While social mobility and economic opportunity are important aspects of the American ethos, the data suggest they are more myth than reality,” analysts Michael Greenstone, Adam Looney, Jeremy Patashnik and Muxin Yu write. “In fact, a child’s family income plays a dominant role in determining his or her future income, and those who start out poor are likely to remain poor.”

That’s especially true for the poorest families, whose children are disproportionately more likely to remain poor for the rest of their lives. 

That inequality manifests itself in higher education, too. While graduate rates for wealthy students continues to climb, those for their low-income counterparts remain stagnant, the analysis finds. Similarly, the achievement gap has increased between the rich and poor. 

A college degree, however, can be a ticket out of poverty.

“Higher education has always been a key way for poor Americans to find opportunities to transform their economic circumstances,” the report states. “In a time of rising inequality and low social mobility, improving the quality of and access to education has the potential to increase equality of opportunity for all Americans.”

That means to preserve some semblance of equal opportunity in this country, policy makers have to figure out how to make higher education more accessible to the poorest families. 

In the meantime, there’s a growing number of students who are researching the return on investment of an education, shining a light on schools that churn out expensive degrees with very little payoff. 

Read the entire Brookings Institute study here.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you believe that education unlocks the door to social mobility? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jennifer Wadsworth
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