Limited American meritocracy and the importance of a college education

A foundational cultural value in America is that residents should have equal opportunities and that if people work hard and grasp these opportunities, they will be able to get ahead. But academics have suggested for decades that while this might sound good, real chances to move up the social ladder are more limited. Some recent data suggests this is indeed the case: compared to other industrialized nations, being born into a poor American family is more limiting.

Among children born into low-income households, more than two-thirds grow up to earn a below-average income, and only 6% make it all the way up the ladder into the affluent top one-fifth of income earners, according to a study by economists at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

We think of America as a land of opportunity, but other countries appear to offer more upward mobility. Children born into poverty in Canada, Britain, Germany or France have a statistically better chance of reaching the top than poor kids do in the United States.

What’s gone wrong? Thanks to globalization, the economy is producing high-income jobs for the educated and low-income jobs for the uneducated — but few middle-income jobs for workers with high school diplomas…And Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argues that thanks partly to the rise of two-income households, intermarriage between rich and poor has declined, choking off another historical upward path for the underprivileged.

“We’re becoming two societies, two Americas,” Putnam told me recently. “There’s a deepening class divide that shows up in many places. It’s not just a matter of income. Education is becoming the key discriminant in American life. Family structure is part of it too.”

Increasingly, college-educated Americans live in a different country from those who never made it out of high school.

This article only mentions a small bit of data and it would be interesting to see the mobility rates for all Americans.

But these findings present Americans with a contradiction: we talk about social mobility but reality is a lot harsher. What often happens is that certain cases of people who “made it” are trumpeted and held up as examples when really those people were exceptions rather than the rule.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers lays this out in a simple way: those born into more privileged positions accumulate advantages over time. One of these advantages in America today is a college education. For many in the middle and upper classes, college is a foregone conclusion: a young child is expected to accomplish this goal. But to get to this point, middle and upper class children have more financial resources, better schools, better health and nutrition, parental support (“concerted cultivation”), and more.

This gap between the college educated and those with less than a college education is an important one to watch in the coming decades.