No matter the measure you use–education, income, heritage, race, family size, job type, language–Americans are moving to greater segregation than we have ever before experienced. This is a no-brainer; it has been the pattern for decades, and it becomes more dominant each year.
We must be satisfied with it, for we are doing nothing, absolutely nothing to change it. Certainly not in higher education.
My students, most of them first-generation college students, many of them immigrants, almost all of them from the less fortunate “side of the tracks” in one way or another (generally in many), are still sold the dream that they can make it to the other side of the divides, that their education is going to make a difference. They have been told that degrees are all it takes, told it throughout their education. I work with an Associates degree program, a transfer program meant to prepare students for baccalaureate majors. Few of these students were strong candidates for college in the first place (else they would be at one of the other CUNY campuses) though most of them (even those lacking basic skills) have the intellectual capacity for college work. As in A.A. programs nationwide, however, their success rate is abysmally low. We, like educators everywhere, are working hard to change that–but we still are, also, abetting a situation of growing separation.
What are these students going to do when they do get their Bachelor’s degrees and find that they still aren’t going to get the prize jobs? When are we going to admit to them that the dreams for their futures that we have helped foster can never be realized, that their chances of crossing to the other side are next to nil? When are we going to recognize that we are fooling ourselves–along with our students–when we claim that degrees are enough in themselves?
When are we going to admit to our students what is right before our faces–even in our college towns? Richard Florida, in a recent article, points out what we all know but few admit:
When medium and smaller-sized metros are taken into account, many of the places with the most concentrated poverty turn out to be college towns, where the town-gown divide seems to be very real. State College, Pennsylvania (home to Penn State), has the highest level of poverty segregation in the country; Ann Arbor (University of Michigan) is fifth; Ames, Iowa (Iowa State) is eighth and New Haven (Yale University) is tenth. Madison, Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin); Boulder, Colorado (University of Colorado); Iowa City, Iowa (University of Iowa); and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois (University of Illinois), all suffer from relatively high levels of poverty segregation as well.
All around us are signs that our picayune efforts are meaningless, that the divides between rich and poor aren’t going to be narrowed by education. Yet we keep at it. I do, too. Why?
I like to tell the story about how I, when first taking a graduate course in Iowa City, would show up in my mechanic’s blue uniform, “VW” over one pocket and “Aaron” over the other, generally a red rag hanging from a back pocket. I wasn’t really working class, but I certainly was crossing between two worlds that, even then, had very little to do with each other. If my classmates thought I was a little weird, my co-workers did, more so. Few on either side had ever even talked with someone from the other. I knew even then that the different worlds in America aren’t coming together… and even realized that education wasn’t going to change that.
That was more than thirty years ago. In the meantime, for all our efforts, the divide has grown (and the “other” side has become poorer)–for all the talk elsewhere of “opportunity,” for all the apparent expansion of options. Even school “choice” is proving a chimera, a means of keeping well-to-do kids out of schools with the riffraff. Even with “choice,” where we come from influences where we will be today as much as it ever has.
None of our new opportunities make much difference for those who had few in the first place. Suzanne Mettler points out that:
More Americans than ever enroll in college, but the graduates who emerge a few years later indicate that instead of reducing inequality, our system of higher education reinforces it. Three out of four adults who grow up in the top quarter of the income spectrum earn baccalaureate degrees by age 24, but it’s only one out of three in the next quarter down. In the bottom half of the economic distribution, it’s less than one out of five for those in the third bracket and fewer than one out of 10 in the poorest.
Ronald Brownstein, writing in The Atlantic, says:
Those raised by parents with college degrees were vastly more likely than those raised by parents without degrees to say that their family encouraged them to attend college. Those from families with college experience were also much more likely to report that they themselves started college directly after finishing high school, and that they ultimately obtained a postsecondary degree.
It’s worse than that. As I said, no longer is getting a degree enough–not any degree, that is. Where it is from has become much more significant than it ever was before, adding another divide.
The college degrees that will do anything for a graduate’s career are, more and more, those from the more “elite” institutions. With greater and greater competition for fewer and fewer plum positions, this was as inevitable as it is continuation of a tradition as old as the nation. We’re seeing how bad this has become today even in the hiring of professors. Even institutions like my own, when hiring for the nationally-dwindling tenure track, have their pick of candidates. In fact, hiring committees in all fields almost anywhere must now plow through piles of CVs of qualified candidates. This leads, of course, to shortcuts: a PhD from Harvard or a book from Oxford University Press starts to mean more than, say, a track record of working successfully with a particular student population, a harder thing to evaluate. It’s the prestige of one’s pedigree that begins to matter most and not the work one has done or one’s own cultural experiences.
Pretty soon, the divide between our professors and their students is going to be wider than ever before.
Just like everything else in 21st century America.
Update: In today’s New York Times, in an editorial about “The College Faculty Crisis,” the editorial board writes, “College degrees worth having don’t come cheap.” They are discussing the growing reliance on adjuncts, especially at community colleges, but are, perhaps inadvertently, strengthening my case here. Over the past decades, we have (as a culture) pretended that the degree’s the thing (this is the impetus behind the growth of online for-profit college). But it is not. Where one gets the degree from matters at least as much, today, as the degree itself. This should not be the case. Unfortunately, it is.