Americans have long considered education a universal remedy for what ails us, including social and economic injustice. Even when we have political differences, we often see education as a legitimate mechanism for advancing social mobility because we believe it is the fairest arbiter of economic opportunity. If you make the grades, get the degrees and qualify for the high-paying jobs, you will have earned your way to economic success -- or so we may think. Give everyone a fair shot, we may say, and social inequality will sort itself out.
But the truth is we have overrelied on education as a mechanism for advancing equal opportunity and societal well-being. The education system has not been the facilitator of equal opportunity we have imagined. The costs of our misplaced faith have been high not only for individual Americans but also for American society as a whole.
Far from being a lever for equal opportunity, education is at the heart of the American merit myth. From early childhood education through graduate school, education is key to the intergenerational transmission of race and class privilege. Its role in dividing the advantaged from the disadvantaged has only grown as the economic demand for workers with postsecondary credentials has risen and the wage premium associated with having those credentials has increased. That has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, as workers with bachelor’s and graduate degrees have been most protected from the economic fallout that the virus has wrought.
Postsecondary education’s role in widening economic gaps is fairly straightforward. It starts with highly educated high-income parents who make sure their children attend the best elementary and secondary schools and have access to the extracurriculars that appeal to admissions officers at elite private and public colleges. Those elite colleges transmit high status to their students -- along with better chances of graduating than the average student has at a nonselective institution. Thus, well-to-do parents use the resources associated with their own educational and social attainment to transmit their advantages to their children, while elite educational institutions thrive on the race for prestige by catering to students from families at the highest levels of socioeconomic status. And the cycle continues uninterrupted.
Imagining a More Just System
So what is the cost to our society of this perpetual cycle of inequality, and what would happen if policy makers and educators were able to interrupt the cycle? Working in partnership with the Postsecondary Value Commission -- which has been investigating for several years how colleges and universities can promote opportunity and equitably increase economic mobility -- our research team at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce set out to answer this question.
What we found is promising news for higher education and for the United States at large -- that is, if we can agree that higher education is more than a mechanism for perpetuating inequality, and that it should be working for the collective prosperity of us all.
In the thought experiment we conducted, we asked, what if people in the bottom 40 percent of earners (and those not earning anything) had the same level of educational attainment as those in the top 60 percent? And what if all racial and ethnic groups had at least the same level of postsecondary attainment as white Americans?
The short answer is that the United States would be a very different place. Our economic analyses revealed that the share of people with an associate’s degree or higher would increase substantially across all racial and ethnic groups, with more than half of the population earning postsecondary degrees. The number of people with an associate’s degree or higher would increase by 12.9 million low-income white adults; 10.2 million Latino adults; 5.9 million Black adults; 498,000 Asian adults; 462,000 American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AIAN/NHPI) adults; and 457,000 adults of other races and ethnicities.
Because earnings are typically higher for people with higher educational attainment -- and there is no compelling reason to think that won’t continue to be the case as the economy increasingly demands highly educated workers -- we can expect these workers to have higher earnings commensurate with their higher levels of educational attainment.
To be sure, those higher earnings would benefit individuals and their families. But they would also produce substantial benefits to society, including an estimated public monetary gain of $956 billion each year. Higher educational attainment would also likely yield substantial nonmonetary benefits to society, such as increased critical thinking abilities, stronger civic engagement, lower inclinations toward authoritarianism, a more positive orientation toward American pluralism, better health, boosts in agency and empowerment, and a rise in happiness.
To put it another way: the United States currently loses out on $956 billion per year -- that is, close to $1 trillion annually -- plus a plethora of nonmonetary benefits, all because we have failed to enact racial and economic justice in our higher education system.
The $956 billion in potential annual monetary gains represents a combination of increased tax revenue (a $308 billion boost annually); increased GDP from higher spending (a $542 billion boost annually); and reduced public spending on programs and services related to public health (an annual savings of $58.7 billion), criminal justice (an annual savings of $13.8 billion) and public assistance (an annual savings of $33.7 billion). Those latter savings would arise from the fact that higher educational attainment is associated with better health, lower crime rates and less need for public assistance.
Those public gains could coincide with substantial personal benefits that would have major implications for the project of building a just and flourishing society. The earnings gaps between different racial and economic groups would begin to close, and so would gaps between those groups’ potential to accumulate wealth through higher savings.
To be clear, no transformation of the postsecondary system would be sufficient on its own to close the enormous intergenerational wealth gaps that exist today. On average, nearly half of personal wealth is transmitted by bequest instead of being acquired through a person’s own work or investments. Thus, while postsecondary equity could change individuals’ lives, it could not erase the enormous intergenerational wealth gaps that have accumulated over hundreds of years.
The higher levels of educational attainment our experiment describes could not be achieved without substantial spending. An initial investment of at least $3.97 trillion would be required, plus additional long-term costs associated with maintaining higher capacity in the education system. While that is an enormous investment, in the long run, the benefits of attaining equality in educational attainment would undoubtedly surpass the associated costs.
The Hard Limits of Educational Equity’s Potential Impact
Our thought experiment demonstrates that an investment in educational equity would pay off for society. To be sure, fixing our broken postsecondary system will be an essential part of any plan to address the deep racial injustice that has plagued our country since its founding, along with the economic disparities that have deepened over the past few decades. But our experiment also showed that there are hard limits to postsecondary equity’s possible impact, and those limits don’t end with the small potential to affect the country’s wealth gaps that we mentioned above.
Even with equitable educational attainment, without additional changes, inequality in the labor market and society would persist. Black, Latino and Indigenous Americans still wouldn’t have earnings equal to those of white and Asian Americans -- and that’s particularly true for Black, Latina and Indigenous women. Women already have higher educational attainment than men today and yet continue to be paid lower wages.
To accomplish equal pay, we would have to extend our work to address inequality beyond schools and colleges, into the labor market and the broader society. We would need more women and Black and Latino workers in the highest-paying fields, like engineering; better child and elder care to ensure that all students can complete their degrees and all workers have the time and resources to thrive at work; and an end to the systemic racism and labor market discrimination that have limited opportunity for Black, Latino and Indigenous workers, especially women.
Even more sobering, to bring about the changes that the higher education system could achieve, we would need real, substantive reform on a scale that the postsecondary system -- along with our legislators, policy makers and courts -- have thus far failed to enact.
Too often, higher education tries to blame its failures on the K-12 system. Students aren’t prepared for college, many postsecondary educators say. To some extent, they’re right: higher education is the capstone in an educational system that is unequal from the beginning to the end. The inequality in opportunity begins at birth, and it accumulates across young people’s lifetimes. We will never have truly equal opportunity in postsecondary education until we have equal opportunity at every step of the pipeline from birth through career. In order to reach our goal of ensuring that every person has a chance to realize their full potential, we must dismantle silos and treat early childhood education, K-12, higher education and the workforce as all one system.
If we looked at the system that way, we would recognize that each person’s journey from youth to adulthood follows a single thread. And we could design our education and labor institutions to support young people on every step of the way. Throughout the system, we need massive investments in academic and career counseling and an end to the pernicious tracking by race and class that continues to plague our educational system even today. At the postsecondary level, we need to address the college affordability problem. And we need to swiftly reverse the deepening inequity that COVID-19 has wrought on our education system, in which the gulf between elite and underfunded institutions has grown even larger than it was before the pandemic.
The chances that all these changes will happen may be slim. But those who think we can’t immediately get started making progress are wrong. Already, 500,000 college-ready students graduate high school each year and don’t get a college credential. Most of those students enroll in college but don’t graduate. The first step toward progress would be providing stronger academic and wraparound supports -- including better academic and career counseling and mental health services; more comprehensive assistance with personal and financial needs, including tuition, childcare, food and housing; and stronger transfer pathways -- to ensure that these students can reach their educational goals.
The second step would be to strengthen the academic pipeline all the way back to early childhood. At present, our system fails far too many talented children. The chances of earning a college degree and finding a good job in young adulthood are often determined more by a student’s family socioeconomic status than by early achievement -- for American children, it’s better to be rich than smart. A kindergartner from a family in the highest quartile of socioeconomic status (SES) but with low test scores has a seven in 10 chance of being high SES at age 25. In contrast, for a kindergartner with high test scores but from a family in the lowest SES quartile, the outlook is much dimmer: they would have only a three in 10 chance of being high SES by age 25.
As we see it, that’s a glass half-full: we have an opportunity to ensure that seven out of 10 talented low-income children who are currently failed by the system can fulfill their demonstrated potential. To deliver on that goal, we will need to treat supporting young people’s success as a shared enterprise, which will mean building sound connections across the silos of early childhood education, K-12 education, postsecondary education and work through strong partnerships among educators and between educators and employers.
The barriers on the path to racial and economic justice are some of the most difficult challenges our country has faced. But if we pursue this endeavor with all due urgency and tenacity, the possibility of enacting change is in our hands. And that change could be both a boon to the individuals who would benefit the most from real educational opportunity and transformative for American society at large.