If you cling to the ideal of higher education as a force for building fairer societies, these are not encouraging times. Over the past few months, there’s been a wave of criticism suggesting that, rather than driving social mobility, higher education is tending to reinforce social divisions.
Strikingly, some of this criticism has come from people in the heart of higher education. Take William Deresiewicz, who taught for 10 years at the prestigious Yale University. He describes the American higher education as a system that is “exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead”. He’s not alone: Suzanne Mettler, who teaches at Cornell, another top U.S. university, argues that “college-going, once associated with opportunity, now engenders something that increasingly resembles a caste system”.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Over the course of the 20th century, higher education went from being an elite to a mass phenomenon. As we’ve noted before, it’s estimated that in 1900 there were only around half a million students in higher education worldwide. By 2010, the number had risen to an estimated 177 million.
In the developed countries of today, the expansion of tertiary education, especially after World War II was accompanied by the emergence of a strong middle class – two trends that were not unconnected. A university education was associated with opportunity and social mobility. When the British political leader Neil Kinnock referred to himself in the 1980s as “the first Kinnock in a thousand generations” to go university, he was speaking not just for his own family but for millions of others.
But, today, it seems clear that the benefits of higher education are no longer making their way down through society in quite the same way. The latest evidence comes from the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2014, which looks at the relationship between the education levels of young people and their parents. In basic terms, if you have at least one graduate parent you’re very likely yourself to go to university. But if your parents didn’t go to university, and especially if they didn’t finish secondary school, the odds are much lower.
This relationship between the education levels of parents and their children is key to determining social mobility. Unfortunately, in OECD societies, the relationship seems to be getting stronger, not weaker. The OECD’s adult skills survey found that about 43% of people aged between 45 and 55 had higher levels of education than their parents. Among those aged between 25 and 34, the proportion was just 32%. (Of course, these are averages, and the situation can vary greatly between countries.)
The concern is that this relationship will become even harder to break in the future. That’s because having a college education increasingly determines your earning ability. On average, more than 80% of graduates have a job compared with less than 60% of people who haven’t completed secondary education. And even though too many young graduates are unemployed today, they still have better job prospects than young people with lower levels of education. The income gap between graduates and non-graduates is growing, too.
So, a vicious circle develops. Families where parents are graduates have higher incomes, and relatively more to invest in the education and development of their, who, in turn, are likely themselves to go on to be graduates. By contrast, families where parents don’t have a tertiary qualification are slipping further behind, bringing up children who are less likely to make it to higher education. The result, say some, is that a “bachelor’s degree is the closest thing to a class boundary that exists today.”
But is higher education to blame? In reality, it can only do so much. If pre-school, primary and secondary schools have failed to meet the needs of children from poorer families, it’s unrealistic to ask higher education to leap in and save the day once a young person hits 18.
The real work to make access to tertiary education more equitable has to begin much earlier. To start, education systems need to ensure that students from poorer families have the qualifications they need to go to university. As the OECD’s PISA programme has shown, some countries do a much better job than others of minimising the impact of social background on how well students do in school.
School systems also need to do a better job of raising students’ expectations, regardless of their family background. And they need to ensure that young people with the potential to be the first in their family to go to college have the information they need to make the right education choices.
Education at a Glance 2014 (OECD, 2014)
OECD Education GPS – data on education policies and practices, opportunities and outcomes.